"I'm really impressed with the way Zack Wheeler goes about things," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "I really am. He's going to be really good."
All that haunted Wheeler on Wednesday was Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff homer in the sixth, on an 0-2 slider that caught far too much of the plate -- a "spinner right down the middle," in Wheeler's words, despite his intentions to bury the pitch in the dirt.
Beyond that, Wheeler had little to regret, scattering seven other hits and a walk in a game that officially eliminated the Mets from playoff contention.
The offense simply could not support him against Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren, who struck out eight over six one-hit innings. After Juan Lagares singled to lead off the fourth, Haren -- who could not escape the third inning the last time he faced the Mets -- set down the final eight batters he faced.
"We can sit here every night and discuss the same stuff over and over," Collins said. "You've got to make adjustments. You've got to step out of the batter's box or sit in the dugout, and pay attention, and realize what the opposing pitcher is doing to get you out, and try to come up with a plan to make an adjustment at the plate and try to put the bat on the ball.
"I know they're young, and that's all part of it. But as we've said before, in the growing stages this time of year, we want to see some guys get better."
If the Mets had designs on rewarding Wheeler with a no-decision, Anthony Rendon spoiled them with a two-run double off Vic Black in the eighth, plating Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche. With that, Wheeler became all but assured of his third loss in four starts.
But the Mets, of course, are not judging their rookie on his personal win-loss record. All they hoped to see this season was improvement, which Wheeler has displayed. As the season has progressed, Wheeler's strikeout rate has increased, his walk rate has dropped and his ERA has fallen. That all excites the Mets.
"Just because this guy doesn't have the same demeanor in the clubhouse or in the dugout that Matt Harvey does, doesn't mean that this guy doesn't compete," Collins said. "This guy competes tough on the mound."
That Wheeler saved some of his best work for the home stretch is significant for another reason, too. Pitching in September for the first time in his professional life, Wheeler has not fallen victim to the same type of fatigue that engulfs so many rookies this time of year. That bodes well for him next year in his first full big league season.
"I just know that sixth month is difficult," Collins said, adding that learning how to wade through it is a skill. "The extra 30, 40 innings that you're going to pitch over a Minor League season is a lot. The number doesn't seem like a lot, but it's a lot."
Though the Mets have not revealed their exact plans for Wheeler, the rookie figures to have roughly two starts left before being shut down on an innings limit. Wheeler is up to 163 2/3 innings, 14 2/3 more than he pitched all of last year. Like most teams, the Mets do not allow their young pitchers to log much more than a 30-inning jump from season to season.
Wheeler, for his part, insists that the Mets "don't tell me anything" regarding his innings limit. So until they do, he is "just going to pitch every fifth day."
Probably pretty well, too, if his recent history is any guide.