Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals during a spring training game on March 22, 2018, at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

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Coleman: Zack Wheeler's Grip On Rotation Spot Slipping After Rough Outing

Mets Righty Gives Up 5 Runs, 7 Hits Over 2 Innings

Ed Coleman
March 23, 2018 - 12:00 pm
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (WFAN) -- This wasn't exactly what Zack Wheeler, or the Mets coaching staff, was looking for.

Presented Thursday night with an opportunity to nail down the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation -- at least for a short while anyway -- Wheeler threw 58 pitches, lasted just two innings and gave up five runs (three earned) and seven hits. In 10 innings of work this spring, Wheeler has allowed 22 hits and saw his ERA shoot up to 8.10.

Wheeler's problem?

"Not executing my pitches," the right-hander said. "I felt like my off-speed was there today, but fastball command has been off the last two starts. The ball is leaking back over the plate. They're hitting ground balls, but they're just finding the holes."  

MORE: Montero Has Torn UCL, Likely To Undergo Tommy John Surgery

As you might expect, with a lot riding on the start against the Nationals -- even though manager Mickey Callaway downplayed the importance beforehand -- Wheeler was quite dejected.

"I'm highly disappointed," Wheeler said. "I have to keep my head up, though. I'm feeling healthy, feeling good, but maybe just off a little mechanically, and hopefully I can get that figured out quick."

Wheeler's preparation is solid, but something -- nerves, pressure, too much adrenaline -- is providing a disconnect when he takes the mound for a game.

"Bullpens have been good. It's just not translating to the game," Wheeler said. "Maybe it's that little extra added adrenaline. I've been working on my new arm slot and stuff.  Like I said, the adrenaline is what's changing it once I get to the mound, and that's why I'm a little inconsistent."

Callaway is a big proponent of pitchers getting ahead in the count  -- and Wheeler didn't do that Thursday.  

"Everyone has to get ahead to be successful," Callaway said. "Control the count and put themselves in a position where they can just continue to throw strikes and let the batters put pressure on themselves. Looks to me like maybe Wheeler putting a little pressure on himself, trying to be too fine at times, falling behind, and then you end up grooving a fastball because the last thing you want to do is walk a guy. He's just not getting ahead quite enough right now."

The beneficiary of Wheeler's problems may be Seth Lugo. The righty relieved Wheeler on Thursday and threw four scoreless innings with five strikeouts. Lugo has made seven appearances this spring -- all but one in relief -- and has a 2.87 ERA over 16 innings with 17 strikeouts and three walks. He is stretched out enough to make a start for the surgically recovering Jason Vargas if need be. And it seems the sensible way to go at the moment.

Vargas keeps talking as if he may not have to miss a start, but when asked whether he wore a glove on the hand he just had his hamate bone removed from, he said no. Someone else caught it and handed him the ball.  

"Probably won't try and catch a ball for a while on it, and hopefully I don't forget how to catch," Vargas said.

He doesn't sound like someone ready to climb a major league mound in 10 to 12 days to make a start.

Meanwhile, Callaway talked up Wilmer Flores, and it sounds like the Mets' utilityman is in store for a lot of work.  

"It might be a different position every day or the same position three days in a row," Callaway said. "My goal is to get him starting as much as possible. We're going to be able to do that because guys need days off, and Wilmer deserves to play. And not just against lefties. He can hit a good right-handed pitcher, too. So he's going to play."

Would Callaway play Flores in the outfield?  

"I would. ... I think Wilmer feels like he's prepared enough to go out there," the Mets manager said. "So I wouldn't be surprised if you see him starting some games out there. It makes sense."

Callaway also said his biggest decision is whether to carry seven or eight pitchers for the bullpen at the start of the season. The Mets have five off days in April, and there's a lot of thought being given to taking another bat for the bench if the Mets feel they can get by with 12 pitchers early on.

Callaway also said there will be a lot of different lineups. Certain players may be in regular spots in the lineup (including Yoenis Cespedes hitting second), but with guys getting days off, there will be a lot of shifting around.

Center fielder Michael Conforto, who tore the posterior capsule in his left shoulder during an at-bat in August, is doing everything he can to move up his May 1 return date. And he will likely do so. He has looked terrific down here, swinging freely and showing power already. In Jacob deGrom's simulated game Wednesday, Conforto blasted two homers. In a minor league game Thursday, he hit for the cycle. Conforto will return sometime in April. Book it! And the Mets can really use his bat.

OTHER NOTES

Pitcher Rafael Montero -- not a lock to make the team despite being out of options -- will undergo Tommy John surgery and be gone for the entire 2018 season. And right-handed reliever Hansel Robles was optioned to the minors Friday morning.

Cespedes hit two home runs in Thursday night's game and now has five in just 31 at-bats this spring. Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier also went deep. And Brandon Nimmo continues to look good at the top of the lineup.