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Zack Wheeler steps up when Mets need it most

2019-09-11

For the past two nights, the Mets have dominated the Diamondbacks by playing clean baseball. What looked like a quiet and drama-free win on Tuesday night quickly became tense, though, as the bullpen scraped through the final two innings.

Justin Wilson ultimately got the final four outs, and the Mets beat the Diamondbacks 3-2 behind three RBIs from Todd Frazier and seven strong innings from Zack Wheeler.

Wheeler was fixated on retiring the batter 60 feet in front of him — and that included allowing a runner to easily steal a costly base behind him in the first inning. Wheeler stranded eight runners on base in his previous start against the Nationals, and he followed up by leaving six baserunners stranded against the D-backs on Tuesday.

The right-hander bore down and escaped sticky situations over and over again as he navigated Arizona’s lineup for seven innings of one-run ball. He struck out seven batters, gave up five hits and walked two over 104 pitches. Tuesday was Wheeler’s 12th start of at least seven innings this season.

The lengthy start was especially needed on a Seth Lugo-less night. The Mets’ best relief pitcher was unavailable Tuesday after taking 21 pitches to secure the final six outs of their 3-1 win on Monday. So Mickey Callaway went to Brad Brach to start the eighth. Brach, who has a 5.40 ERA since joining the Mets, gave up a solo homer to Eduardo Escobar to cut the D-backs’ deficit to 3-2.

Wilson was summoned for the final four outs of the game, which became increasingly tougher after he ended the eighth inning on 15 pitches following a grinding at-bat against Adam Jones. Still, Wilson hunkered down and used 17 more pitches to retire the side in the ninth, albeit having given up two singles, and record his second save.

Wheeler has allowed two earned runs over 12 combined innings between his last two starts — both against teams ahead of the Mets in the Wild Card race. The 29-year-old, who becomes a free agent this offseason, is finding his footing at the right time. The Mets need nothing short of exceptional outings from their top three starters in Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Wheeler for their goal of sneaking into the postseason to stay alive.

A key to Wheeler’s recent success has been limiting the long ball. After allowing at least one home run in seven consecutive starts from May 16 to June 17, and allowing a career-high 18 homers this season, Wheeler has served up just six home runs in his last 13 starts over the span of 71.2 innings. His 0.75 HR/9 since June 22 is one of the best marks in the Majors.