Wheeler breezes through final Vegas start

LAS VEGAS -- Earlier this season in Las Vegas, Zack Wheeler must have felt like a character from one of the "Hangover" movies -- minus the debauchery -- wondering what the heck had happened to him.

After missing most of spring training with an oblique injury and being hampered by a blister under the nail of his right middle finger for much of April, the hard-throwing right-hander was unable to throw an effective breaking ball. He had an 0-1 record with a 5.79 ERA, which is high even for the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

Once the blister disappeared, though, Wheeler returned to top form and went 4-1 over his next eight starts for the 51s and lowered his ERA by nearly two runs, to 3.93.

Making what is expected to be his final start for Triple-A Las Vegas on Thursday night at Cashman Field, Wheeler turned in his best performance of the season for the 51s (34-31).

Pitching as if he had a plane to catch to the majors -- the New York Mets' top pitching prospect will make his debut Tuesday night in Atlanta -- Wheeler made quick work of PCL-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 Francisco Peguero on a hanging breaking ball with one out in the fifth.

That was the only hit allowed by the 6-foot-4, 185-pound Wheeler, who had seven strikeouts and two walks in 5 2/3 innings before leaving after his limit of 85 pitches.

"I felt great; I felt comfortable," Wheeler, 23, said. "I was trying to pound the zone, and the curveball was working for me today. I was able to throw it over for strikes early in the count and keep them off balance.

"Everything feels good right now."

Wheeler, who was summoned to talk to the media after the game by Mets first baseman Ike Davis -- who went 0-for-3 and is batting .182 (2-for-11) in three games for Las Vegas -- said he's excited about making his major league debut 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."

The 51s mustered only five hits in support of Wheeler, who took the loss. Peguero, Rich Poythress and Nate Tenbrink hit back-to-back-to-back homers in the eighth for the Rainiers, who scored 10 runs over the final three innings.

Wheeler went 4-2 with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts for the 51s, allowing 30 earned runs and 61 hits in 68 2/3 innings, with 73 strikeouts and 27 walks.

"The only setback he had this year, really, was that blister he had, but since that time he's progressed and gotten better," Las Vegas manager Wally Backman said. "It's time to see what he's got [in the majors]. I think he's ready.

"I believe his stuff is, plus he's capable of getting away with mistakes at times because he throws so hard. 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. He's going up at the same time and he pitched the same amount in Triple-A."

Harvey will start the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader, with Wheeler slated to start the nightcap.

"That's a pretty good one-two punch," Backman said.

The sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft by the San Francisco Giants, Wheeler was traded to the Mets in July 2011 for outfielder Carlos Beltran.

While Wheeler, who threw 52 of his 85 pitches for strikes Thursday, said he's ready for the majors, even though he wasn't entirely pleased with his performance in Triple-A.

"I feel like I'm ready but I don't feel like I've accomplished what I set out to do," he said. "I wanted to cut down on my balls and throw more strikes. I still feel comfortable with where I'm at right now."

Wheeler, rated baseball's No. 8 prospect by MLB.com, was consistently clocked at 96 and 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. Some guys might have one or two of those real good pitches, but when he's right, he can have four."

Las Vegas pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who had the same role the past nine seasons for the Marlins and Expos/Nationals, said Wheeler reminds him of Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson.

"Stuff-wise, 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.

"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."

Las Vegas shortstop Brandon Hicks, who has big league experience, expects Wheeler to excel with the Mets.

"Whenever he puts his off-speed and everything together off that 97 to 98 [mph fastball], he's going to be tough," he said. "A hard thrower like him, you've got to work off his fastball because if you're looking off-speed, you're not going to be able to catch up to his fastball.

"You've just got to try to hit early in the count, because he's got good stuff to put you away late in the count."

Wheeler's last two starts were against Tacoma, the Mariners' Triple-A affiliate. Tacoma's interim manager, former Mets catcher John Stearns, came away very impressed.

"He looked very good tonight: Those first five innings, he was just outstanding," he said. "Throwing mid-90s with his fastball and two or three other pitches -- he's got the breaking ball down in the zone and the fastball up -- he's going to be a big league No. 1 or 2 starter for a long time, in my opinion."