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June 20, 2014

What You Need to Know

Wheeler Hooks the Fish

by Chris Mosch and Daniel Rathman


The Thursday Takeaway
Earlier this week, Ben Lindbergh made an appearance on Jonah Keri’s podcast, where the two raved about Thursday’s matchup between a pair of promising young National League East hurlers: Zack Wheeler and Andrew Heaney. Rarely does a Thursday night matchup between the Mets and Marlins prompt Keri to declare it a must-watch that had him as excited for a pitching matchup as he’s been in quite awhile, but the two youngsters each turned in performances that justified the hype.

In his major-league debut, Heaney came out firing from the get-go, dialing up seven of his first 15 fastballs at 94 MPH or higher. Unfortunately for the ninth-overall pick of the 2012 draft, David Wright crushed one of those 94 MPH heaters to center field and off the Marlins Park home run sculpture for a solo blast.

That fastball left over the heart of the plate was one of Heaney’s few mistakes of the night. He faced just two more than the minimum from that point on and didn’t allow another New York batter to reach second base. The 23-year-old complemented his fastball with his slider against same-sided batters and mixed in his changeup in addition to his two best offerings to righties. He threw 38 of his 59 fastballs for strikes and generated swings-and-misses with just under a quarter of his breaking pitches. When Mike Redmond lifted Heaney in favor of Bryan Morris, the Marlins’ top prospect exited with a superb line of four hits, a walk. and three punchouts in six innings of work.

While Heaney’s debut undoubtedly had Marlins fans thrilled about a future Fernandez-Heaney front of the rotation, it was Wheeler who stole the spotlight. Command and efficiency have been issues for New York’s 2011 haul for Carlos Beltran ever since he made his major-league debut a year and a day prior to Thursday, but neither posed as an obstacle against this season’s sixth-best offense, which Wheeler mowed down on 111 pitches.

Miami tallied leadoff singles in the second and sixth innings, and drew a walk to start the fifth, but the Mets defense erased all three with twin killings behind Wheeler. A pinch-hit single by Reed Johnson with two outs in the ninth inning was the only thing that kept Wheeler from facing the minimum during his first career shutout. In fact, the 24-year-old became the youngest Mets pitcher to spin a 1-0 shutout since Dwight Gooden did it in 1985.

Wheeler had made it through the seventh inning just three times prior to Thursday and had never recorded an out in the eighth, but he got ahead in the count often with 17 of 28 first-pitch strikes and boasted some of his best fastball command to date. Wheeler’s most effective offering was his four-seamer, which he threw for a strike 75.6 percent of the time and at an average of 96.8 MPH—the highest single-game average velocity of his career. He complemented the heater with a healthy dose of sliders, curveballs, and changeups on his way to racking up eight strikeouts.

Thursday night’s matchup provided a glimpse into the future for a pair of young rotations that project to be two of the division’s best once their respective aces return from Tommy John surgery. With Noah Syndergaard expected to make his debut later this year and both Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi exhibiting stretches of brilliance in 2014, you can expect many more enticing pitching duels between these two clubs in the near future.

Quick Hits from Thursday

The 2014 season hasn’t been too kind to Nick Swisher. The Cleveland slugger missed the first two weeks of June with a hyperextended knee and entered Thursday’s matinee against the Angels with a .611 OPS—200 points lower than his career average. Swisher struck out in all three trips to the plate against C.J. Wilson and flew out to center during the ninth inning against Joe Smith, prompting some boos from the home fans at Progressive Field.

However, Swisher changed the tune of the Cleveland crowd later in the afternoon after capping off an improbable comeback win with an extra-inning walk-off blast.

The Halos and Tribe spent the majority of the afternoon knotted up at 1-1, as Wilson and Justin Masterson each turned in seven quality innings. The Angels grabbed the lead in the second inning when Howie Kendrick—who just missed an opposite-field home run off the top of the wall earlier in the inning—scampered home on a wild pitch by Masterson.

The Indians answered with a run of their own in the third inning, and the Angels were seemingly on their way to reclaiming the lead the next inning. Josh Hamilton led off the fourth with a five-pitch walk and moved up 90 feet after an Erick Aybar single. Up next was Kendrick, and the Angels second sacker drove what appeared to be another opposite-field double off Masterson. However, Ryan Raburn made a nice shoestring catch in the right-center gap and came up firing to double Hamilton off of second base.

Both teams stranded a runner in scoring position multiple times through the first nine innings (including Swisher, who struck out looking with runners at the corners in the sixth) before the Angels were able to break through in the 10th. Kole Calhoun started a two-out rally against Scott Atchison with a single to right field, and Mike Trout followed with a two-bagger to left field. With the Indians implementing a full shift, Albert Pujols snuck a slow chopper through the right side of the infield to give the visitors a 4-2 lead.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia elected to let rookie Cam Bedrosian try to shut the door instead of Ernesto Frieri, who imploded against the Braves last Saturday and surrendered a run during his last appearance on Tuesday. However, the 2010 first-round pick sandwiched a double to Jason Kipnis between a pair of walks, so Scioscia had little choice but to turn to his struggling veteran reliever with the bases loaded and one out. Frieri retired David Murphy on a fly out and had Swisher in a 1-2 hole, but he left a fastball up and Swisher delivered:

Frieri had gotten away with two fastballs up the zone earlier in the at bat that Swisher had fouled off, but the veteran made sure to make Frieri pay for his third mistake with the first walk-off grand slam by an Indian in Progressive Field history. It was the second time in five days that Swisher had launched an extra-inning game-winning dinger for the Tribe, as his solo shot off Junichi Tazawa in the 10th inning of Sunday’s game gave Cleveland a 3-2 win in Beantown.

While Swisher looks to build on his pair of game-winning drives and turn his season around, Frieri’s ERA ballooned to 5.83 after Thursday and his season continues to spiral downward. The blast the right-hander served up to Swisher was the eighth tater he’s given up this season, tying him with Addison Reed and Shawn Tolleson for the most allowed by a reliever. Scioscia indicated during post-game interviews that he plans to go forward with a closer-by-committee, but the bullpen as a whole continues to be one of the club’s most glaring weaknesses; only the Tigers and Rockies have a poorer bullpen FRA this season.

***

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