ATLANTA — Now that he’s about to make his highly anticipated debut with the New York Mets, Zack Wheeler will rely on some advice he got from a minor league coach.
Don’t look up.
“I know it’s going to be a big moment in my life,” Wheeler said Monday, the day before he takes the mound against the first-place Atlanta Braves. “There’s probably going to be some nerves.”
The 23-year-old right-hander is one of baseball’s top pitching prospects and a reason for hope in what is turning out to be another dismal season for the Mets. Heightening the anticipation, he’ll be making his first start in the big leagues not far from where he grew up in the northwest Atlanta suburbs, meaning plenty of family and friends will be in the stands at Turner Field.
Wheeler said he’ll try to follow a tip he got a couple of years ago from his pitching coach in Class A, former big leaguer Steve Kline, who said all the sights and sounds of a big league park can be a bit overwhelming the first time out.
“He said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t look up,”‘ Wheeler said. “I think he threw up off the back of the mound his first game. I’ll always remember that advice.”
The youngster will be joining a rotation that already includes 24-year-old Matt Harvey, who is having a brilliant year (5-1, 2.04 ERA, 102 strikeouts in 97 innings) in his first full major league season. And, in an interesting twist, Harvey will pitch the opener of a day-night doubleheader before Wheeler goes in the second game.
For the Mets, it’s a chance to show their frustrated fans what they hope will be the centerpieces of a brighter future.
“I don’t think I’m a saviour at all,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got some great arms here, some great players. We might not be doing too well right now, but I know the talent of these guys. Hopefully we’ll turn it around soon. I’m just trying to come up here and help the team any way I can.”
Wheeler arrived in Atlanta on Sunday and got a chance to hang out with family and three of his friends at the suburban Atlanta home he shares with one of his brothers.
“It was a good night, just talking and hanging out and telling some stories,” Wheeler said. “We had a good time.”
Now, it’s time to get down to business. His first start comes against a power-laden Braves team that holds the biggest lead of any division leader, a team he remembers following as a kid when they had pitchers such as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz — though Wheeler downplayed his allegiance to the team he’ll be facing.
“I wasn’t a huge baseball fan,” Wheeler said. “I liked watching basketball a little bit better. But how could I not watch the Braves growing up? My pop was always watching them. They were always good. But I’m not a huge Braves fan like everyone thinks I am.”
Wheeler was the sixth overall draft pick by the San Francisco Giants in 2009 after being selected as Georgia’s top prep player his last two years at East Paulding High School. He was dealt to the Mets in 2011 for outfielder Carlos Beltran and started this season at Triple-A Las Vegas, where he got off to a slow start but pitched much better in recent weeks. He was 4-2 with a 3.93 ERA for the Pacific Coast League team.
The hard-throwing Wheeler struck out 73 in 68 2-3 innings, but 27 walks were a bit of a concern. He’ll be looking to get more pitches over the plate in the big leagues.
“I walked a lot of guys in the minors,” Wheeler said. “That’s always been a problem with me. I want to come after hitters and throw strikes.”
New York manager Terry Collins said he told Wheeler the same thing he told Harvey before his big league debut.
“He’s only one guy and he’s going to go out there every fifth day,” Collins said. “I told him if he pounds that strike zone, he’ll help.”
Wheeler is just the latest in a long list of players to emerge from the baseball-rich Atlanta suburbs, a group that includes a couple of Braves regulars, outfielder Jason Heyward and catcher Brian McCann.
Wheeler, in fact, has worked out with Heyward during the off-season.
They’ll be facing each other Tuesday.
“I’m happy for him,” Heyward said. “It’ll be fun.”
Wheeler said it helped to grow up playing in an area that has produced so many big leaguers, and his development was pushed along even more by his time in Las Vegas, where the altitude and baked-out desert infield created conditions that definitely favoured the hitters.
“It makes you battle a little bit more,” he said. “It puts a little more pressure on you.”
He’ll try not to put too much pressure on himself as a rookie, even though Harvey has already set a high standard.
“I’ll just go out there and do the best I can,” Wheeler said. “People can take it how they want. Hopefully I’ll do well and be up here with him for a while.”