“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
That was the approach I’d taken to Zack Wheeler’s return to a major league mound over the past six months, maybe more. After having Tommy John surgery before the 2015 season got underway, Wheeler not only missed all of that season but didn’t make it back in 2016, either. He threw one minor league inning, which officially meant he pitched professionally during that calendar year, but not in any meaningful capacity.
And then came this year’s spring training. Wheeler threw harder than expected, bringing back memories of the way he threw in the big leagues in his first two seasons with the Mets. The results weren’t spectacular, but they were spring training results, stats that are really useless in determining anything about a a baseball player.
Tonight, Wheeler is set to pitch for the Mets for the first time since his surgery as they begin a three-game series against the Marlins, the team against which he had his best major league start. In that game back on June 19, 2014, Wheeler shut out the Marlins, gave up just three hits, and took of from that point through the end of the season. Over his final eighteen starts that year, he had a 2.93 ERA and looked like he might have turned the corner, with his performance matching his talent.
If not for an injury to Steven Matz, and perhaps if not for one to Seth Lugo, too, Wheeler might not be making this start tonight. Limited to some number of innings—the Mets came out with specific numbers early in spring training but walked those back once Wheeler was needed in the Opening Day rotation—he might not be available for the entirety of the 2017 season.
But for now, it seems rather appropriate that he’s making his season debut the night after Matt Harvey made his. Wheeler’s major league debut came on the Mets’ very own Super Tuesday, June 18, 2013, when he pitched the second game of a doubleheader against the Braves after Harvey pitched the first.
The circumstances are very different now. Back then, Harvey and Wheeler were the headliners, Jacob deGrom was just starting to make a name for himself, and Noah Syndergaard hadn’t yet worked his way up to the big leagues. After Harvey’s excellent season debut last night against the Braves, though, it’s hard not to be excited about Wheeler’s return. There’s no way of knowing what his season will look like, but we should finally get to see it—and believe it.