51s' Wheeler sharp in expected final start before promotion


Aside from the Tacoma Rainiers, the only people upset with Zack Wheeler’s performance for the 51s on Thursday were those who were denied another cold brew on Dollar Beer Night at Cashman Field, where the taps are shut off after six innings.

Pitching like he had a plane to catch to the big leagues — where Wheeler is expected to make his debut for the Mets on Tuesday in Atlanta — the hard-throwing right-hander made quick work of Pacific Coast League-leading Tacoma (41-27), albeit in an 11-0 loss.

He struck out the first batter he faced, Seattle Mariners outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, and faced the minimum through four innings before giving up a solo homer to Carlos Peguero on a hanging breaking ball with one out in the fifth.

That was the only hit allowed by Wheeler, who had seven strikeouts and two walks in 5 2/3 innings before leaving after 85 pitches — which was his limit — in what is expected to be his final start for Las Vegas (34-31).

“Everything feels good right now,” Wheeler, 23, said. “I feel like I’m ready.”

Erasmo Ramirez and Josh Kinney combined on a five-hitter, and Peguero, Rich Poythress and Nate Tenbrink hit consecutive homers in the eighth for the Rainiers, who scored 10 runs over the final three innings.

Rated the Mets’ top pitching prospect — and the No. 8 prospect in the game by mlb.com — Wheeler went 4-2 with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts for the 51s, allowing 30 runs on 61 hits in 68 2/3 innings, with 73 strikeouts and 27 walks.

“It’s time to see what he’s got (in the majors). I think he’s ready,” Las Vegas manager Wally Backman said. “I believe his stuff is plus, he’s capable of getting away with mistakes because he throws so hard at times, and he’s just going to continue to get better.

“He’s on the same path that (Mets ace) Matt Harvey was on last year.”

Harvey is slated to start the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Braves, and Wheeler is expected to start the nightcap at Turner Field, 30 miles from his childhood home.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Wheeler consistently was clocked around 97 mph throughout his start.

“He doesn’t lose velocity at all,” Backman said. “If he’s throwing his three or four pitches for strikes, the opposing team’s in trouble. You just can’t teach 97 or 98 (mph) to a pitcher, or a breaking ball like that or a good changeup.”

Besides dealing with the dry climate and routine fly balls that become home runs in the hitter-friendly PCL, Wheeler also overcame adversity early this season before regaining his top form.

After missing most of spring training with an oblique injury, Wheeler was hampered by a blister under the nail of his right middle finger that left him unable to throw an effective breaking ball and with an 0-1 mark and a 5.79 ERA through his first five starts.

He bounced back to go 4-1 over his last eight starts while lowering his ERA by nearly two runs.

“Once that finger started feeling better, he started throwing the ball a lot better,” Las Vegas pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “Especially when he executes pitches down in the zone, it’s electric stuff. Guys don’t have good swings on it when it’s down in the zone.”

St. Claire, who was the pitching coach the past nine seasons for the Florida/Miami Marlins and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, said Wheeler reminds him of Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson.

“Stuffwise, they’re very similar,” he said. “Josh only had three pitches when I first had him: a power fastball, a power slider and a changeup. Zack has a (fastball), curveball, slider and his fourth pitch, the changeup.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

 

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