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It’s Electric

We begin, as we apparently sometimes do, in June 2014 in Miami.

Zack Wheeler [1]‘s best career start remains the one he turned in against these same Marlins that June 19. (Though we really are talking laundry: Justin Bour [2] is the lone holdover from that squad.) In that game [3] Wheeler faced the minimum 24 batters over the first eight innings, carving up what was still Team Loria with fastballs, sliders and change-ups that all bordered on unhittable. It wasn’t a no-hitter — double plays had taken care of Casey McGehee [4]‘s second-inning leadoff single, McGehee’s fifth-inning leadoff walk, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s single leading off the sixth — but Wheeler’s performance [5] was as dominant as any game in which you start getting late-inning alerts and the ninth inning pops up on national TV.

The problem? The Mets were only up 1-0, and I was mired in the dank memory of Dallas Green [6] leaving Paul Wilson [7] in to finish up a similarly promising 2-1 win over the Cubs on a spring afternoon in 1996. With two outs in the ninth and the tying run on second, the Mets walked Mark Grace [8] to face Sammy Sosa [9], who connected and turned the game into¬†a 4-2 loss [10]. It would be unfair to say Sosa’s home run also walked off Wilson’s career, but it requires less poetic license than I’d like.

Eighteen years later, Wheeler gave up a two-out single to Reed Johnson [11]. Like Wilson, he was left in, and needed to retire Rafael Furcal [12], a Mets nemesis on too many days. But Furcal lined a fastball (arriving at 95) to center, the game was over, and the sky was the limit for 24-year-old Zack Wheeler.

Except the sky can be lower than you think. Wheeler struggled with the usual stuff young pitchers struggle with: location, consistency and mechanics. Then he blew out his UCL, needed an extra season to rehab it, and was ineffective when he finally did return. This year’s spring training wasn’t much better, and ended with Wheeler demoted. Wednesday marked the first time he took his turn in the rotation with Noah Syndergaard [13], Jacob deGrom [14], Matt Harvey [15] and Steven Matz [16], a quintet once touted as a too many aces for one hand, but which had become a full-employment act for medical professionals.

If that sounds like a lot of baggage for a spot start in April, welcome to New York.

What was most encouraging about Wheeler’s performance Wednesday night, at least to me, was that his stuff didn’t scream “electric.” Rather, Wheeler succeeded by acing the three tests he failed more often than not back when he was a wunderkind: location, consistency, and mechanics. His delivery is different, as Ron Darling [17] noted: Wheeler now brings his hand back more sharply instead of “wrapping” or “cupping” the baseball behind his hip.

Darling said that helps turns good mechanics into muscle memory, and in earlier games he’s discussed cupping as something Harvey’s also trying to unlearn. This isn’t a new thing — Darling said he had to learn not to cup the baseball as a young hurler — so I’m curious why it’s a new thing around the Mets. Was it not detected last year? Did Dan Warthen [18] not see it as a flaw, while Dave Eiland [19] does? Did Warthen try to address it but found his charges wouldn’t listen?

Whatever the case, Wheeler was sent out to Las Vegas to work on his mechanics, and the early returns couldn’t have been better. But in an inverse of that 2014 game, the Mets were behind 1-0, stymied by Jarlin Garcia [20] in his first big-league start. Stymied, as in they went the first six innings without a hit. (Parallels upon parallels: that June 2014 game was Miami starter Andrew Heaney [21]‘s very impressive big-league debut. If you’re wondering what happened to Heaney, he was packed off to Anaheim, tore his own UCL and has struggled since returning.)

Don Mattingly [22] removed Garcia despite his having only thrown 77 pitches, which seemed like a big mistake and sent me into a bout of cranky-ass Clint Eastwood glowering and side-eyeing. Later, Mattingly said he thought the deep counts Garcia had started running up indicated he was tiring. Defensible, though given what’s going on in Miami, it’s possible that no one noticed Mattingly has been blinking HELP ME in Morse code and he’s now communicating his distress in a new way.

The Mets, as is their wont in this so-far-charmed season, went to work in the eighth. The comeback started on a troubling note, as Tayron Guerrero [23] drilled Kevin Plawecki [24] in the hand with a 100 MPH fastball. With Travis d’Arnaud [25] revealed to have a partially torn UCL — which I believe was the lone body part TdA hadn’t had trouble with — that spelled trouble. Plawecki, though sporting an impressive bruise, was able to make a fist and take a base, and two batters later Michael Conforto [26] sent him to third with a pinch-hit double off Chris O’Grady [27]. Adrian Gonzalez [28] then hit for Wheeler, a lefty-lefty matchup that worked, as has pretty much everything Mickey Callaway [29] has tried in 2018.

Gonzalez singled to center and the Mets had the lead, which they’d expand to 4-1 thanks to the heroics of Asdrubal Cabrera [30], Wilmer Flores [31] and Todd Frazier [32]. Throw in solid relief from Robert Gsellman [33] (whose evil sinkers left the Marlins with thousand-yard stares), Jerry Blevins [34] and A.J. Ramos and the Mets had completed a perfect road trip and risen to a 10-1 record [35].

When you’re 10-1, flaws can be convincingly labeled as beauty marks. Conforto has showed he can hit lefties, but Juan Lagares [36] needs to play and his defense has been impeccable. Brandon Nimmo [37] should be playing in the big leagues, but see the above problem. The Mets short-circuited an inning by being too aggressive on the basepaths, but the vast majority of the time their See an Inch Take 90 Feet philosophy has worked wonders. The Mets have a surplus of starters with one more yet to make his 2018 debut, but after a year of Tommy Milone [38] I will refuse to call this a problem even if subjected to torture. (Which also describes a year of Tommy Milone.) Heck, the fact that there’s a worry about the catchers suggests Tomas Nido [39]¬†will walk off the Brewers Friday night.

It’s good to be 10-1. It’s better than good, in fact. It’s electric. Heck, as a wise old man once said, it’s amazin’.