The word has come from all corners of the New York Mets chain this season about pitcher Zack Wheeler. Real deal. Power arm. Best prospect in the organization. And that includes Matt Harvey, who’s been terrific in the big leagues after a strong season in Buffalo that culminated in a Star of Stars performance at the Triple-A All-Star Game.
Wheeler had middling results at best in his first four starts with the Bisons, with an 0-2 record and 4.71 earned run average, but it all came together Sunday.
Now it was easy to see what the scouting reports were talking about.
The 22-year-old right-hander was dominant in the opener of a doubleheader against the Rochester Red Wings, fashioning a three-hit shutout to post a 1-0 win that was his first in Triple-A. The Red Wings earned a split with an 11-9 victory in the nightcap, wiping out a 4-0 Buffalo lead before the remnants of a crowd of 7,721.
Rochester didn’t really touch Wheeler in the opener. He struck out seven, walked two and needed 98 pitches to complete his gem, the first complete-game shutout by a Bison since Pat Misch tossed a four-hitter here against Norfolk on May 15, 2010.
“We had one run and I was feeling good. I figured that would be enough for how I was feeling,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes you get one run and it can be tough but I felt good with everything, fastball command, offspeed pitches getting over for strikes. Felt confident and it worked out well.”
Wheeler retired the first eight batters he faced and 13 of the first 15. He struck out the first two batters in the seventh, Clete Thomas and Brian Dinkelman, on 95-mph fastballs. Eduardo Escobar then ended the game on a fly ball to left in an at-bat that featured three pitches at 94 or higher.
“It’s a power arm with a power breaking ball,” Herd manager Wally Backman said. “He pounded the zone and they couldn’t sit on his fastball because he had real good command of his breaking stuff.
“If this kid stays healthy, he’s going to mature into something pretty special. We’re just seeing the surface of it because he really dominated today.”
Wheeler’s ERA was at 3.75 for innings 1-3 but ballooned to 6.00 for innings 4-6. For one day at least, the second and third times through the batting order didn’t trip him up.
“The first few starts here I was trying to work on some stuff and I was sort of messed up mechanically,” Wheeler said. “Little hitches here and there and I couldn’t find the strike zone or stay down in the zone. I just put that in my head and it seemed to be working.”
Given that it was only his fifth start in Triple-A, Wheeler said he wasn’t feeling any pressure to collect his first win at his newest level of pro ball.
“It’s just another level, another game,” Wheeler said. “It’s not a big relief or anything.”
The Bisons got the game’s only run on Matt den Dekker’s sacrifice fly in the fourth, with Adam Loewen completing a nifty slide to cross the plate. The Red Wings never got a runner to third base against Wheeler.
“He worked fast and kept the defense on their toes,” Backman said. “The defense wants to have a pitcher work quick like that so you can get in and out and get back in the dugout as soon as you can. He did a great job.”
Wheeler’s performance was in sharp contrast to the Herd’s mound work in the nightcap, as five pitchers combined to give up 12 hits and walk seven.
Veteran reliever C.J. Nitkowski (0-2) had the biggest damage tab, getting scorched for seven runs on seven hits in just 1? innings to bloat his ERA from 2.79 to 8.18.
The 20 runs scored in the nightcap were the most in a doubleheader game in the ballpark’s 25 seasons and one shy of the franchise mark of 21 set in a 13-8 win over Iowa at War Memorial Stadium on Aug. 16, 1987.
With seven games left, the defeat ensured the Bisons (64-73) of a losing season, their third in the four years the Mets have been their parent.
It also snapped Rochester’s 11-game losing streak in Buffalo that dated to the second game of a twinbill on April 19, 2011.