WASHINGTON -- So often this season, particularly lately, the Mets have gushed about Zack Wheeler's growth. Over the past four months, Wheeler has learned to control his elite arsenal of pitches and to be more efficient. His flaws are less evident; if nothing else, the Mets believe he is closer to the end of his learning curve than the beginning.
For Wheeler, Tuesday night's 6-1 Mets win over the Nationals was a microcosm of his entire season. Wheeler struggled early, battling both his control and his pitch count. But he grew stronger as the game progressed, where in the past he might have folded.
The end result was one earned run over 6 2/3 innings for Wheeler, who improved to 7-8 in his first full season. But that record alone does not come close to telling his story. This does: Over his past seven outings, each of them quality starts, Wheeler is 4-0 with a 1.59 ERA.
"That's what we talk about when we bring up the fact that he's maturing, that he's really starting to figure out what it takes here," manager Terry Collins said. "His command wasn't there at the beginning of the game, but he just continued to battle and stayed with it. He tried to make some big pitches and did. This kid has really, really gotten better. As he continues to improve, the sky's the limit."
Wheeler's DNA is unquestionably different from that of Matt Harvey, whose skill level seemed to increase the moment he first stepped into a big league ballpark. Wheeler struggled to adapt, but eventually did.
"That's the best that I've seen him," Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. "His velocity was a lot higher than I remember. He had a lot of life in his fastball. He was really throwing fastballs for the most part of the game. But we had our chances."
Wheeler simply squelched them one by one, through a combination of bullishness and luck.
After Wheeler walked the bases loaded in the second inning and allowed Washington's first run to score on a wild pitch, Jose Lobaton hit a hot grounder that struck a baserunner, turning a potential two-run single into an out.
Wheeler escaped that jam without further damage, then used double plays in the third and seventh innings to keep the Nationals from scoring again, as well as an Eric Campbell outfield assist in the sixth. He departed with a man on third base and two outs in the seventh, watching from the bench as Juan Lagares made a spectacular diving catch to strand the runner. The play shook Lagares up for a moment, but did not result in any lasting damage.
"There's no substitute for catching the baseball," Collins said. "When you have good pitching and you catch the ball, it's tough to score."
Plenty of offense came for the Mets against Washington starter Gio Gonzalez, who was erratic outside of a middle-innings stretch that saw him retire nine batters in a row. David Wright opened the scoring with an RBI single in the first inning, and Wheeler added his own run-scoring hit in the second. The Mets did nothing else until the seventh, when Daniel Murphy contributed a two-run single and Lucas Duda singled home the team's fifth run. In his first game back from the Minors, Kirk Nieuwenhuis added an RBI single in the eighth.
By that point, Wheeler was in the clubhouse, confident that the Mets' revamped bullpen was not about to lose a second straight game.
Yet the Mets were only in that position because Wheeler had managed to recover from his early struggles. That might not have been the case earlier this year, when a few bad innings might have doomed Wheeler from the start.
Warming up in the bullpen earlier Tuesday, Wheeler knew he possessed something less than his best stuff. The Nationals confirmed that with their early threats, prompting Wheeler to solicit advice from catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitching coach Dan Warthen.
Warthen walked into the clubhouse, watched some video of the first few innings and offered a mechanical tweak, which Wheeler adapted on the fly. In the middle of what could have been one of his worst starts of the season, Wheeler essentially figured out how to become a better pitcher.
"You can let the game get away and he didn't," Collins said. "That's why I'm telling you, this kid is really starting to figure it out."