As a teenager, there was a time Zack Wheeler couldn't even make his local travel team. Now, less than 24 hours after celebrating his 22nd birthday, all the first-round Draft pick does is win.
The Mets' No. 1 prospect allowed a run on three hits while striking out eight batters over seven innings in the Double-A Binghamton Mets' 8-1 victory over the Reading Phillies on Thursday.
Wheeler, who retired 19 of the first 20 batters he faced, threw 68 of 90 pitches for strikes and did not walk a batter for the second time this year. His eight punchouts fell one shy of matching a season high, while the victory gave him his fifth consecutive win.
Wheeler has come a long way -- literally and metaphorically -- from when he was just a lanky 13-year-old living in the shadows of his two older brothers, Jacob and Adam, in a small city in northwest Georgia.
Could he have ever imagined a professional baseball career was just around the corner?
"Never. Not at all. I was coming off a few summers when I couldn't even make a team," said Wheeler, remembering the time he got selected to play for the East Cobb Astros in his junior year of high school.
"Then coach Guerry Baldwin picked me up and gave me a chance. He had my brother when he was 16 and he knew about my genes and my arm. I wasn't really developed and I hadn't matured, but he knew it would happen and he gave me a chance and I will always thank him for that."
On Thursday, MLB.com's No. 25 prospect continued to make his former coach proud. He retired the side in order in each of the first three innings before third baseman Miguel Abreu singled on a line drive back up the middle.
"I felt good. My command was pretty good tonight and I was able to attack the hitters and let my defense work behind me," the 6-foot-4 right-hander said.
"My slider was struggling a little bit, but I was using my curveball, changeup and fastball and getting ahead of people."
Abreu was the only batter to reach base against Wheeler until the Phillies used consecutive one-out doubles to push across a run in the bottom seventh.
Left fielder Darin Ruf pulled a two-bagger down the third-base line and right fielder Brandon Tripp laced a 1-0 pitch into center field to break Wheeler's shutout.
Selected sixth overall in the 2009 Draft by the San Francisco Giants, Wheeler struck out Sebastian Valle and retired Jiwan James to strand Tripp in scoring position before turning things over to the bullpen for the final six outs.
"My spot was coming up in the lineup [in the eighth inning] and I was getting a little bit tired,' Wheeler said. "But I was also starting to miss my spots a little bit. When you do that, you get hit hard."
Wheeler improved to 5-2 on the season and lowered his ERA to 1.88. He has struck out 60 batters over 52 2/3 innings and he has yet to allow more than two runs in any of his nine Double-A starts.
The right-hander has allowed one run or fewer in six of his appearances this year. And in his last three starts, he has surrendered just seven hits in 22 innings.
Since coming to New York in the deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Giants last June, Wheeler has rarely struggled.
He allowed four runs in his Mets debut with St. Lucie on Aug. 1, 2011. After that, he allowed just two runs over his final 23 innings and five starts.
In 15 career starts as a Met, Wheeler has a 1.92 ERA across two levels. If you ignore his first appearance, he has a 1.55 ERA.
"There are good hitters in this league, but so far I'm doing well," he said. "I want to command my fastball more and keep developing my off-speed pitches.
"Coming into this league, I wasn't confident throwing strikes. I was worried about it, because all you hear is that guys are more patient at Double-A and that they see a lot more pitches because they know what they're sitting on. Luckily, every team I've faced so far has swung the bat pretty early."
On Thursday, Binghamton left-hander Robert Carson worked around a hit over the final two innings to secure the victory.
Shortstop Josh Rodriguez smacked a three-run homer in the fourth inning -- his fourth longball of the year -- and left fielder Pedro Zapata was 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored.
Reading starter Jonathan Pettibone (4-5) allowed eight runs -- seven earned -- on seven hits and two walks while striking out four batters over six innings in the loss.