ATLANTA -- When former MLB pitcher Steve Kline made his major league debut in April 1997, he elevated his eyes to take the lights and fans and noise of Oakland-Alemada County Stadium and the immediate effects were of the nauseating variety. Big league debuts are not easy. According to Kline's star pupil in Low-A ball, he threw up off the back of the mound.
So as that star pupil, Mets top prospect Zack Wheeler, readied himself to make his MLB debut Tuesday night in Atlanta, Kline's advice rang loud in his ears: "Don't look up."
He didn't at least not at first.
"It was an experience," Wheeler said. "When you're trying to settle yourself down and sorta slow things down and think about what the next pitch is going to be and who's on-deck, you can just look around and calm yourself down."
By most standards, Wheeler did not disappoint. There were frustrating jams and walks and mound visits, but the right-hander delivered the promised goods, pitching six scoreless innings and striking out seven to earn his first career win.
With his parents sitting behind home plate with none other than Braves legend Chipper Jones -- the two are both agent Al Goetz's clients -- and a hefty scattering of his loyal metro Atlanta following, the East Paulding High School product ran into his share of difficulties, but kept fighting his way out. In the first inning, only eight of his 23 pitches were strikes and the Mets used two mound visits (an unofficial one from veteran David Wright, then an official one led by Mets pitching coach Dan Warthan) to get him out unscathed. His walk back to the visiting dugout was slow, deliberate. Again, debuts are rarely easy.
Wheeler went on to allow a walk or hit in each inning.
"I was really impressed with the way he competed after he walked a couple guys. He stepped off the mound, got his composure and went after people with his fastball," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "That's what the stars do. The big ace pitchers they have the ability to reach down inside when times are tough and make big outs."
The bottom line, though, is that on June 18 Collins filled out two lineup cards featuring two pitching phenoms, and a beleaguered fanbase watched along with anticipatory vigor.
Zack Wheeler's ability provides hope. The Mets certainly need it.
Four minutes into Wheeler's introductory press conference on Monday afternoon, in an auxiliary clubhouse buried deep beneath Turner Field's seats, the term "savior" came up for the first time. It's an odd expression to hear expressed in a sports press conference. Yet, such is Wheeler's oft-used moniker; his designated role. Welcome to the Mets.
But for a franchise wallowing in a 328-385 record over the past five seasons -- the team's last winning season came in 2008 -- religious references come with the territory. Potential sparks hope sparks faith. Wheeler, the No. 6 overall pick by the Giants in the 2009 MLB Draft before heading to New York's farm system in the 2011 Carlos Beltran deal, has every tool to generate such hype. The No. 7 prospect entering the season (as ranked by MLB.com), the 23-year-old's electric fastball, which touched 96-98 mph consistently Tuesday, and above-average breaking stuff have the Mets believing that their rebuild has a viable foundation.
Still, "savior" is rather strong, misleading even.
"I don't think I'm the savior. At all," Wheeler said. "We've got great arms here and we've got great players. We might not be doing to well right now, but I know the talent of these guys and hopefully we can turn it around here soon. Hopefully we can turn it around and everyone can like us again."
Co-star is more appropriate.
If anything, besides sleep deprivation and a little more Georgia rain, Tuesday's Braves-Mets doubleheader provided a preliminary crystal ball for the future of New York's rotation. At least, that's the hope for general manager Sandy Alderson and his front office.
Wheeler's strong performance Tuesday night came on the heels of budding superstar Matt Harvey's no-hit bid in the early game, a seven-inning, three-run performance in which the end result did not reflect the dominance. Harvey did not allow a hit until the first out in the seventh inning; he struck out a career-high 13 batters. The North Carolina product is poised to be an All-Star, perhaps even a Cy Young contender.
To his credit, Wheeler did not shy away in the encore.
"That's the thing. He set the bar so high because he just took off once he got up here," Wheeler said of his former minor league teammate. "I know people expected it; some people didn't. I'm just going to go out there and do the best that I can. People can take it as they want it."
However, the overarching storyline defining the Harvey-Wheeler duo -- "Two Co-Stars (Or Co-Saviors) Attempt To Rescue Mets From NL Cellar" is not one either pitcher buys into, at least not on the surface. Both players seem to understand that, in a sport like baseball, hoisting a team up on one's shoulders rarely precedes a focus on one's individual performance. Wheeler relayed as much in his opening presser; Harvey echoed similar sentiments following his latest gem.
"When it's my time to battle, it's my time to battle," Harvey (6-1, 2.16 ERA) said when the "co-savior" questions came about in Turner Field's visiting locker room. "My job is to go out and control what I can control. It starts with my focus, my approach."
With the opposing NL East teams retired to their respective locker rooms, there was a crowd around Wheeler's locker, waiting to hear just how the soft-spoken ace-in-waiting refused to relent to one of the most explosive lineups in baseball. It received a few smiles and (possibly) even fewer words: "I was happy with my outing. Ready to move on to the next one."
Harvey was already gone, his media responsibilities fulfilled earlier in the day.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two arms -- after all, one is already enjoying wild success while the other is still seeking a spot in the rotation -- but, when allowed to watch them back-to-back in the same ballpark on the same day, it's tough not to. Wheeler's shutout first MLB outing will go down right along with some of the best Mets debuts in recent memory, right alongside the Harveys and Dillon Gees. How to ignore such production and high praise?
With the two wins, the Mets are still just 27-40. Since there is no available spot in the rotation, Wheeler is expected to head back down to the minors. The restoration project is nowhere near complete; nothing is saved.
But there is hope. The Mets certainly need it.
"I just hope that not only you guys who are here to see it, but people elsewhere saw it and it was watched. Certainly, they're going to enjoy watching these two young guys for a long time. They're gonna be around and they're gonna be in the same rotation we've got two guys who are gonna win some baseball games for ya."