When the day arrives, and it’s clear Zack Wheeler has “figured it out,” this will be the day he will appreciate most. New York Mets fans will prefer to reflect on Wheeler’s first MLB start, six shutout innings vs. Atlanta, but Sunday will be one of those starts that will educate the Mets rookie most as he moves forward.
The Mets and Wheeler were roughed up by the Washington Nationals 13-2 Sunday at Citi Field. It was Wheeler’s third MLB start. His final line: 4 2/3 innings pitched, five earned runs, six hits, five strikeouts, two walks, two home runs allowed and one wild pitch. He threw 89 pitches (54 strikes).
Wheeler’s four-run second inning was difficult to watch. Mets fans squirmed in their seats and flinched on social media, screaming for Terry Collins head, calling for Dan Warthen to be fired on-the-spot and begging for relief from the bullpen. The knee-jerk reactions are entertaining but off base. After the game, Collins delivered his typical defensive, hyperactive press conference. It was a blur — as usual.
“Blah, blah, blah, he pitched well his first start … blah, blah, blah, there’s screaming, screaming, screaming that he’s tipping his pitches … Blah, blah, blah, all of a sudden he has to change everything … Blah, blah, blah, it’s not very fair … Blah, blah, blah …”
Then, Washington Nationals (and former Mets) manager Davey Johnson spoke. Good time to start listening closely. “You’ve got to like his arm,” he said. “Good fastball and breaking stuff. But it’s command. It’s always going to be command up here, no matter how hard you throw.”
Johnson guided Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling through their rookie seasons in New York. He’s seen the ups and downs. Johnson witnessed fans throwing a grapefruit at Darling after getting routed 10-0 by the Montreal Expos. He knows the pressure New York places on a 21-year old young man.
How did Johnson handle the situation? He marched Darling right back out to the mound five days later. The Mets 12-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies and Darling’s final line: five innings pitched, six earned runs, nine hits, one strike out, three walks and one home run allowed. Today, those numbers are irrelevant, but the game is significant to Darling. It shaped who he became as a pitcher. In fact, of all the games Darling could have chosen to reflect on during his 13-year career as a major league pitcher, he chose this one for his 2009 book, The Complete Game.
As Wheeler wobbled through the second inning of Sunday’s game, I thought of what Darling wrote:
How a pitcher manages a difficult inning can be one of the biggest determining factors in his makeup. It’s not just about stuff. It’s about what you do with that stuff when the other team seems to have you figured out … it’s how you navigate these initial rough patches that determines the course of your career.
The thought was as relevant to Wheeler’s 2013 start as they were for Darling in 1984 and Matt Harvey in 2012. He suffered through a similar start last season, ironically his third major league start, a 7-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. Harvey’s final line: five innings pitched, five earned runs, eight hits (seven extra base hits), five strikeouts, one walk and two home runs allowed. He struggled with control. After 81 pitches, Harvey was off to the showers. His day was over but the game was not forgotten.
For Harvey, his struggles provided education and understanding. They are necessary, just as they were for Darling. In the midst of the Phillies knocking around Darling for five runs in the second inning, Johnson — not Mel Stottlemyre — visited the mound.
“Just to be clear, you’re not coming out of this game,” Johnson told Darling. “We’ve got bullpen issues, but it’s not just about the bullpen. You need to learn how to pitch your way out of sh*t. I don’t care how many runs you give up. I don’t care how hard these guys hit you. I suggest you start getting some outs so you don’t ruin the back of your baseball card.”
Darling realized it was sink or swim. He wasn’t getting a life preserver. He finished the inning, added three more shutout innings and went on to win 12 games his rookie season, 99 as a New York Met and 136 career wins.