By Brad Kallet
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When Zack Wheeler throws his first pitch for the Mets against the Marlins on Friday night at Citi Field, it will be a seminal moment in a once-hyped career that has been drowned in disappointment and despair.
Wheeler, who will start opposite Wei-Yin Chen in the first of a three-game set, will be making his long-awaited return to the mound. How long has it been? The soon-to-be 27-year-old — it feels like he was 22 just last week — will be appearing in his first major league game since Sept. 25, 2014.
Since Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, the Mets have won 179 regular-season games and eight in the playoffs. Wheeler hasn’t accounted for one of them. Once upon a time, before the Mets had one of the most talented pitching staffs in baseball, Wheeler was the brightest young arm in the bunch. But then came an injury, and then another injury, and then another injury after that. Then he was almost traded. Then he suffered a setback. Then he dealt with another injury, and then a setback … you get the idea.
Yet, to the amazement of many, Wheeler is set to make a return that seemed less and less likely by the day.
That first pitch will be a seminal moment because it will be the start of one of two things: a miraculous comeback in which a forgotten man rebuilt himself, or just a cruel tease of what could have been, and ultimately never was nor will be.
Beyond the stakes for Wheeler personally, the former first-round draft pick’s ability has significant ramifications for the Mets going forward. Wheeler is somewhat of an X-factor on a club that will have its hands full trying to beat out the Nationals in the NL East.
Wheeler has no pressure to be an ace, as Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have firmly established themselves as the top dogs in the starting rotation. Additional pressure was also alleviated on Thursday night when Matt Harvey, coming off the worst year of his career, looked like his former Dark Knight self during an encouraging win over the Braves.
But as the No. 4 starter, Wheeler might be the difference between a very good rotation, a great rotation or a perhaps dominant rotation. If Wheeler throws like he did in 2013 and 2014, when he pitched to a 3.50 ERA and struck out 271 in 285 1/3 innings, this team will likely waltz into the playoffs and pose a serious threat to everyone in October.
Manager Terry Collins, whether he’d like to admit it publicly or not, is also depending on Wheeler more than he did, say, just three short weeks ago. Last month, it was unclear — and even unlikely — that Wheeler would start the season in New York. With Steven Matz, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman in the fold, and Wheeler on an innings limit, the Georgia native was expected to stay in Florida and continue working in extended spring training.
Fast forward to the first week of the season, and both Matz and Lugo are out for the foreseeable future. Wheeler’s potential contributions to this team are no longer a bonus. The Mets need him to pitch well, be dependable and stay healthy, because all of the pitching depth that this organization boasted about — and rightly so, I might add — suddenly looks pretty thin.
The Mets broke camp with seven legitimate rotation candidates, but they’re now down to five. If Wheeler struggles or gets injured, who will take his place? Rafael Montero? In a New York minute, Wheeler went from a luxury to a necessity.
Wheeler had his moments this spring. His fastball touched 97 mph on multiple occasions, and there were many signs of encouragement. He even showed glimpses of the guy that wowed scouts and front office executives when he first emerged on the scene all those years ago. He was also very rusty, and even downright bad, on some occasions, but that wasn’t surprising considering his two-year layoff. His 5.11 ERA in 12 1/3 Grapefruit League innings was worrisome, but the hope is that he was just easing his way back and finding his rhythm.
The truth is, no one knows what to expect on Friday night, aside from the huge hand Wheeler will get from Mets fans who have desperately been waiting for his return. And regardless if Wheeler mows down the Marlins or gets rocked, there’s only so much we’ll be able to tell from one start.
Syndergaard, deGrom and Harvey have all done their parts through the first three games of the season. Wheeler is more of a wild card, but his performance will be of no less importance.
Can he keep pace? At long last, we’ll get to find out.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to CBSNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet