Zack Wheeler may have looked like a dominant ace on Tuesday, but pitching remains a learning process for the Mets' top Minor League arm.
Wheeler had struggled with his command -- he walked 15 batters over his first 23 1/3 innings -- and that forced him to find answers. He sat down last week with Las Vegas pitching coach Randy St. Claire to compare video of his starts last season with Double-A Binghamton to ones he made earlier this month.
"I was lifting my leg and rotating my shoulders and when we looked at the video, we realized I was rotating too much instead of keeping my shoulders square to the plate," Wheeler explained.
He took the mound Tuesday in Reno on a mission to straighten out his mechanics. To the average fan, he looked no different. But after posting his best line of the season, he knew the hard work had paid off.
"That was a big help," he said. "In the first inning, my first time doing it in a game, I found the right mechanics. And after that, I was good."
Wheeler (1-1) struck out eight and walked one in his longest outing of the season, holding the Aces to one run on five hits over 6 2/3 innings for his first Pacific Coast League victory in Las Vegas' 10-2 rout. The Mets' top pitching prospect threw 65 of 108 pitches for strikes and managed to cut down on his walks. He even helped himself with an RBI single that capped the 51s' three-run second.
"I felt a little better after the first inning," he said.
Wheeler's delivery isn't anything new, however. For whatever reason, he developed a habit of rotating his upper body too much while coming to the plate. It took five starts and a 5.68 ERA to figure out the issue. Essentially, the new Wheeler is the old Wheeler.
"It's new right now, but I did it all last year. I had success with it, keeping my shoulders square," he said. "But it's new right now to me, so I just have to keep them square and take it from there."
Wheeler went 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA across two levels last season, elevating himself to No. 8 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects on Opening Day. Mets fans hoped he would arrive in Queens early this season, but the slow start has kept him in the background.
Now, however, he hopes he's found the solution.
"It was hard to pick up the target, everything was going to the wrong side," he said. "I keep my shoulders square and it's allowed me to throw downhill and stay sharp."
Pulled by Las Vegas manager Wally Backman in the seventh, Wheeler said he felt great.
"I didn't even know I had 108 [pitches], I felt strong," the 22-year-old said. "I could have kept going, but you have to know your limits."
Reno scratched across a run in the first on a fielder's choice, but Las Vegas responded in the second as Zach Lutz was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, Wilmer Flores scored on a double play and Wheeler laced a single to right.
"As a pitcher, they throw you fastballs, that's what I try to sit on," Wheeler said. "I've been taking a lot of BP, just getting my timing down, sitting on a fastball."
Sitting so much so that when Wheeler didn't get a heater in his at-bat in the seventh, he ended up drawing a walk.
"I think in my third at-bat, he kept throwing me cutters," Wheeler laughed. "And I'm just waiting on the fastball."
When it comes to the walks he's issued, he feels progress is being made. He walked six on April 19 and trimmed that number to three in his previous start.
Zack Wheeler's first month
"Even in my last start, even though I had three walks, they were three changeups, they fouled off the fastball, but I'm in the zone," he said. "I tried to carry that over into this game, keep my shoulders square, and after the first inning, after getting my rhythm and timing down, I was good to go."
Where does that leave the right-hander on his path toward New York?
"It's in the back of your head," Wheeler said. "You've gotta make adjustments, and that's what I'm trying to do. I found something wrong, but we'll go from here and hopefully this will continue."