NEW YORK -- Zack Wheeler had only thrown 105 pitches -- a relatively modest total -- in the seventh inning of Monday's 2-1 Mets loss to the Phillies, when he stumbled into a modest jam. With two outs, John Mayberry doubled, the first batter to reach base against Wheeler since the fourth.
Under normal circumstances, Wheeler might have been allowed to face opposing pitcher Cliff Lee, the easiest out in Philadelphia's lineup and the only thing standing between him and seven strong innings. But in the dugout, visions of Matt Harvey's torn elbow ligament flashed across manager Terry Collins' mind.
The Mets had planned all along to limit Wheeler to 105 pitches, which might have been flexible had Harvey not learned hours before the game that he could be sidelined until 2015.
"Obviously with what happened earlier today," Collins said, "we were sticking to it."
And so Wheeler left the game after 6 2/3 fine innings, in a move that ultimately did not matter. Lee and Jonathan Papelbon combined to hold the Mets to only five hits, leaving Wheeler with the same scant type of support to which Harvey had become accustomed.
Said Collins: "The entire day was difficult all around."
It was, of course, most difficult for Harvey, whose elbow injury may require Tommy John surgery. As Harvey addressed his situation at a pregame news conference, Wheeler watched on television from inside the Mets' clubhouse.
Since the day the Mets acquired Wheeler at the 2011 Trade Deadline, he and Harvey have been linked. Though their personalities could hardly be less similar, both are young power pitchers capable of shutting down opposing lineups. For more than two years, thoughts of them headlining the same rotation helped the Mets trudge through losing seasons.
So it is only natural to think that, with Harvey sidelined, the Mets now need Wheeler to step into a higher echelon. He began that process Monday, continuing his strong recent run with 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball; since Aug. 10, Wheeler owns a 2.45 ERA.
The only blemish on his line came in the fourth inning, when Michael Young singled, Darin Ruf walked and Cody Asche plated them both with a triple. Wheeler retired the next nine Phillies in a row before Mayberry's double with two outs in the seventh. That brought an emotionally taxed Collins out of the dugout.
"It's definitely going to be a while before any of us get back up there in pitch count," Wheeler said. "It's just human [nature] when your best pitcher goes down."
After the game, Wheeler and his teammates were still coming to grips with the news of Harvey's injury. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud, another significant building block for the future, said he felt "terrible for the guy" and will be "praying for him." Wheeler called it "horrible."
"No pitcher ever wants to go through that, and no pitcher ever wants to hear about that," Wheeler said. "Especially to a good guy like that."
Throughout the game, Harvey stood in the dugout, thinking about who knows what? At one point, SNY's television cameras caught veteran catcher John Buck with his arm draped around Harvey. Outside Citi Field, talk radio and the internet buzzed with Harvey chatter.
The Mets might have left the park a little less downtrodden had they managed to eke out a win, but their offense quite simply could do nothing against Lee. New York's only run came in the second inning, after Roger Bernadina was unable to field a Marlon Byrd double that could have been caught. The next batter, Andrew Brown, plated Byrd with a single.
From there, Lee retired seven in a row, and 11 straight from the fourth through eighth innings. Unlike Collins, Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg allowed Lee to stay in for 121 pitches.
"Honestly, I didn't feel as good as it turned out," Lee said of his outing. "I felt like I had to battle and was able to just continue to get outs. I was throwing strikes and I felt like I had a good changeup working. That kind of saved me, to be honest with you."
Afterward, the Mets quietly showered, dressed and spoke in hushed tones about their best pitcher. Harvey did likewise, leaving through a back door of the clubhouse in jeans, a T-shirt and white sneakers. An uneducated observer might never have guessed that something was amiss.
But something was very, very wrong for the Mets, and it will take far more than Wheeler's best efforts to fix it.
"I'm going to go out there and pitch the same way that I've been pitching," Wheeler said. "It's unfortunate that it happened, but I'm just going to go out there and do the best that I can and control what I can control."