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Monday, June 3, 2013
Wheeler on verge of Big Apple stage

By Adam Rubin
ESPNNewYork.com

Adam, Zack and Jacob Wheeler
That's a young Zack Wheeler in the middle, flanked by older brothers Adam (left) and Jacob (right).
Barry Wheeler's concern amid the satisfaction about son Zack's looming major league debut with the New York Mets stems from the superhero level at which Matt Harvey has performed.

And that by no means begrudges the wild success Harvey has enjoyed.

"It was exciting until recently, and now I'm stressed," the elder Wheeler confessed about Zack's call-up, which may come as soon as a June 14-16 series against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field. "Two reasons: The outing like Zack had the other day (five runs in four innings on Memorial Day), which happens, especially out there in the desert, I guess. And Matt Harvey has been so phenomenal there's no way Zack can follow that. But that's going to be the expectations of the fans.

"Being from Atlanta, we watched Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- future Hall of Famers -- struggle the first two years. That's more the norm. You know what I mean? That aspect of it has got me a little stressed. But we're still excited. Real excited."

Zack Wheeler
Here's Zack Wheeler on the mound at the age of 14.
Said Harvey, lightheartedly, about fans linking the two: "I do see the Batman and Robin tweets. He's going to have to live up to that, I guess. I guess he's Robin."

Wheeler, obtained from the San Francisco Giants for Carlos Beltran three days before the trading deadline in 2011, in a move widely hailed as a coup for general manager Sandy Alderson, has this going for him: He is wired to keep his cool while playing with the big boys.

That will be the case when you grow up with accomplished baseball- and basketball-playing brothers who are seven and nine years older than you. The since-replaced bio on Zack's Twitter account (@wheelerpro45) described his personality as "chilled." How calm is that?

Before a game at the beginning of his senior year at East Paulding (Ga.) High, a teammate burst into the locker room and awakened him, exclaiming: "Zack! Zack! There's about 40 scouts out here to see you."

"OK," Wheeler replied, before renewing his pregame slumber on a couch.

"I would have been so pumped there's no way I could have taken a nap," Barry said.

Said East Paulding pitching coach Mike Sonnichsen: "He's a laid-back kid. I told him, 'You know, when you're in New York, you're in the spotlight up there. There's going to be a lot of pressure. How are you going to handle it?' This is exactly what he said. This is in spring training. He said, 'I'm just going to let my performance speak for itself and make the decision hard on them whether they want to pull me up or not. I'm grateful for the opportunity.' He knew it was just a matter of time. I mean, everybody did. The Mets are lucky."

Middle brother Adam, now 30 and a carpenter and home flipper in Indiana, pitched in Class A in the New York Yankees organization from 2001 through '04.

"Zack has gotten -- and gets -- a lot of credit for keeping his cool on the mound," said his oldest brother Jacob. (Zack and Jacob are housemates in a Dallas, Ga., foreclosure they purchased partly with Zack's original $3.3 million signing bonus, which is located two cul-de-sacs down from their parents' house.) "That comes from a lot of things. When my brother Adam was being scouted in high school, one of the things every scout said was they loved how he handled himself on the mound. Adam was on a high school team that wasn't very good. He would throw one- and two-hitters and would lose. Zack heard this attribute being talked about so much he did the same."

Zack, who turned 23 four days ago, certainly benefited from his brothers.

In the summer of 1995, Jacob was diagnosed with a heart problem. Still, he resolved to train for the high school basketball season on the freshly paved asphalt road outside their home as the Georgia temperatures topped 100 degrees.

Zack Wheeler
Zack Wheeler celebrates after being drafted by the San Francisco Giants.
"You couldn't stand in one spot without your feet getting uncomfortably hot," Jacob recalled. "I decided I was going to train in the street Monday to Friday, every afternoon. I ran interval sprints. Zack came down the driveway at five years old and asked what I was doing that first day. And I told him I was training for high school basketball, that I needed to get ready.

"The next afternoon Zack asked me if I was going to run, and I said yes. He asked if he could come with me and run, too. He had a blonde bowl cut and chubby cheeks that turned red the second he got hot, so I was hesitant -- especially since I was babysitting him. I told him to grab the portable phone and a water bottle for himself. We walked down the driveway. He put the water and phone in the mailbox and started to copy every stretch I made and began to run when I did."

They ran 20, 40 and 60 yards -- three times apiece. Then they worked their way back down.

"We didn't say one word to each other as we ran, and I finished," Jacob said. "I looked at him and his blonde hair was soaked and his face was so red. I asked him if he needed water and he said, 'I'm not done yet.' Thirty minutes later he finished. I knew that day, whatever he decided to do when he got older, that he'd be the best, because there wouldn't be anyone that worked harder. He ran with me every day that summer."

Zack's brothers taught him to switch-hit as soon as he could pick up a plastic bat, but Zack dropped hitting from his natural -- and more powerful -- right side when he reached high school, since he wanted to focus on pitching and predominantly faced righties at the plate. He is 3-for-10 with two walks this season with Triple-A Las Vegas. He nearly homered on Saturday. The shot ended up hitting the wall at Fresno for a double.

Barry said Zack was an "average" ballplayer until high school, on Little League All-Star teams but not a "stud."

As a 15-year-old, Zack was passed over in the renowned East Cobb Baseball program's draft despite brother Adam's legacy. Barry's friend formed a team of "leftovers." They went .500. Zack blossomed. He got snapped up and became part of a national championship team.

Zack Wheeler
Wheeler looked ready for prime time this spring.

Wheeler, whose fastball topped out at 99 miles per hour in his last outing, is currently 4-1 with a 3.86 ERA in 11 starts in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He has dealt with a blister and acknowledged struggling with dry baseballs in the altitude early this season. He also missed a start last month and received a cortisone injection in his right shoulder for AC joint inflammation.

Although not publicly acknowledged, the Mets are waiting until after the imprecise "Super 2" deadline to promote Wheeler. That will delay Wheeler's arbitration eligibility by a year, making him a $500,000 pitcher, rather than multimillion-dollar pitcher, during the 2016 season. Either way, Wheeler will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2019 season.

Wheeler's debut, a team official acknowledged, could come during that June 14-16 Cubs series. Although not ideal in terms of pressure, considering he grew up 30 miles west of the stadium, it is conceivable Wheeler's debut also could come against the Atlanta Braves during the following series. Either way, he may pitch at Turner Field, since the Mets have five games there in four days because of a previous rainout. One team insider floated the June 18 day game of a split doubleheader in Atlanta as an option.

Wheeler would have plenty of fans in Atlanta. While with the Giants, Wheeler pitched in a South Atlantic League game against the Rome (Ga.) Braves. Immune to pressure, he tossed five scoreless innings.

"He had more fans there than the Rome Braves," Barry said, estimating the personal cheering section at 150 people.

After that 2010 season, his first in professional baseball, Zack returned home and started brotherly banter with Adam. Adam once had a fastball like Zack's, ranging from 95 to 99 mph. A loose shoulder eventually contributed to a labrum tear that by then had ended Adam's career, despite a comeback bid after Dr. James Andrews performed surgery.

"Adam says, 'Man, I can take you deep,'" Barry recalled. "So Zack says, 'OK, let's go down to the school and see.' So they went down to East Paulding High School. The first pitch -- the first pitch -- Adam takes him out of the park. He said, 'Take that.' I thought that was pretty good. What are the odds?"

Said Jacob: "One reason Zack seems so humble when it comes to his game, he really had no choice. Adam and I made sure he was grateful for health and talent. We always made sure he knew there are many people that will never be afforded the opportunities he has or could have.

"Plus, Adam didn't give up a home run in four years of minor league baseball. I don't think Zack gave one up until his second season, and Adam made sure he knew about it. Same thing with velocity. Adam hit 99 mph. The day Zack hit 100 mph, Zack made sure that he knew about it."

Mets manager Terry Collins placed Wheeler's locker alongside Harvey's during spring training. The two regularly spoke.

"It was more seeing what each other was like and how we went about our ways," Harvey said. "Not specifically all baseball, but a lot of it definitely had to do with how to take getting sent down from camp and how to deal with going to the minor leagues for a while and keeping your head down and keeping focused -- just keeping to the task at hand and not worrying what the decision-makers are doing."

When Wheeler turned 23 last week, Harvey jokingly tweeted at him: "And a happy birthday to @Wheelerpro45 who just turned 16."

Replied Wheeler: "anybody want to take me to the DMV to get my license?"

"In my mind, if he comes here and does what he did in spring training, he'll be perfectly fine," Harvey said. "I'm very fortunate I've kind of jumped in and done what I've done. ... But he's fine. He's right where he needs to be. When they decide he's ready, he's ready."