By Ernie Palladino
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Zack Wheeler said before Tuesday that the New York media should never regard him as a savior.
No problem. Given their performance in that day’s opener of the futuristic day-night doubleheader in Atlanta, the nightcap of which served as Wheeler’s major league curtain-raiser, the Mets have him already. His name is Matt Harvey, and all Wheeler has to do for now is complement him. Not even serve as 1A to his 1. Just do a nice, solid job.
Despite the media hyperbole over Wheeler’s importance here, it’s not necessary for him to match anything that Harvey has done since he came up last season. The fact that Harvey turned into one of two things worth watching with these doomed Mets — Wheeler became the other on Tuesday night — is proof that he will be the main one to salvage whatever is left to save in the 2013 season.
He reinforced that image with yet another commanding performance, one that the bullpen nearly turned into another no-decision or loss after his third career flirtation with a no-hitter for six innings. He struck out a career-high 13 and otherwise dominated the National League East leaders.
That’s kind of what a savior does. He follows a lousy setback, the kind where a guy like Dillon Gee deals his tail off into the ninth, only to feed Freddie Freeman one bad pitch in the early morning and lose, 2-1, with a gem. And, by the way, would that scenario even have come about had Terry Collins’ chronically anemic offense scratched out more than Gee’s seventh-inning RBI single?
Of course not. But these are the situations that the 6-1 Harvey faces every time he takes the mound. So far, he has worked miracles. Reported sightings of Harvey walking atop rain puddles may be exaggerated, but he has in fact raised a dead team every time that he has taken the mound.
Harvey did what his teammates have come to expect — retire batters by the consecutive bunches, keep them off balance, use his Tom Seaver-esque confidence to beat opponents mentally as well as physically and get his team deep into the game. Of the three hits he allowed in seven innings, two easily could have been called errors, starting with the seventh-inning flip to absent first baseman Lucas Duda that broke up the no-no bid.
That’s not to say that Wheeler’s performance left anything wanting. He did a nice job getting out of a nervous, two-walk first in which he recorded his first career strikeout. It got even better in the second when he struck out the side around Dan Uggla’s double.
He worked his way out of a jam in the third and got a ground ball for a double play in the fifth. He escaped the sixth with no damage.
Wheeler came just as advertised. He throws comfortably at 95 to 98 mph and has late movement on the fastball. The control could use a little work, as he walked five, but he struck out seven, too. And the Braves’ failure to score a run added to the impressive outing.
Of course, the offense offered no support through the young right-hander’s six innings. Only after his mound work was done did Anthony Recker smash a two-run homer in the seventh to position Wheeler for a win.
All told, nothing in Wheeler’s maiden voyage dampened those future dreams of a Harvey-Wheeler tandem topping one of the strongest pitching staffs in the majors. If Jon Niese and Dillon Gee can provide an upswing, and Rafael Montero works out eventually, watch out. At this point, only Sandy Alderson succumbing to the temptation to send Wheeler someplace for a power hitter would torpedo that scenario.
If Wheeler turns into an equivalent mound presence as Harvey this year, all well and good. He might even become the second part of a 1-1A entry. Even better.
But there’s no need to pressure Wheeler into becoming a savior. The Mets already have one.
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