Wheeler highlights wealth of young NL East pitching

Wheeler highlights wealth of young NL East pitching
September 1, 2013, 11:00 am

Davey Johnson put it fairly mildly when he described the performance put on by Mets rookie starter Zack Wheeler on Saturday night.

"I thought he threw the ball good. He’s good a good arm. Fastball, slider, we didn’t get much against him," said the Nationals' august manager.

In a division suddenly rife with dynamic young pitching, Wheeler's final line -- he gave up two earned runs and struck out three over 6 2/3 innings -- barely stands out as especially notable. 

That in itself is extraordinary.

Wheeler stymied the Nats for most of the evening, yielding only a pair of infield singles in the third inning before allowing two runs in the sixth via a sacrifice fly and a broken bat bloop single.

By that point his cohorts had already hung a pair of crooked numbers on the scoreboard, en route to an  8-0 -- and then 8-2 -- lead.

Wheeler's relatively meager strikeout total belies just how overpowering he was for most of the outing.

"He's got a 95 mph fastball," said Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who managed the bloop single RBI off Wheeler in the sixth. 

"With an eight-run lead, he may or may not decide to just pump heaters. It kind of messes with your mind a little bit. But he’s a good young arm."

One of many, as it turns out.

"We’re seeing a lot of good young arms coming into the division. You’ve got Fernandez, Eovaldi [in Miami]. You’ve got Harvey and Wheeler [in New York]," said Desmond. "There’s a lot of good arms."

In a time of truly dominant pitching, each division can claim its share of young aces -- but none boasts a crop of first-year hurlers as electrifying as that found in the NL East.

The Marlins' Jose Fernandez, who will be shut down shortly in order to preserve his young arm, is already among the best pitchers in baseball.

An All-Star this season at the tender age of 20, Fernandez currently resides near the top of the NL leader board in many statistical categories, and leads the league with 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Fernandez is joined in Miami's rotation by a bevy of impressive young starters, including the aforementioned Nathan Eovaldi (3.76 ERA in 13 starts), Jacob Turner (3.13 ERA in 17 starts), and Henderson Alvarez (3.90 ERA in 11 starts).

Alvarez, at just 23, is the oldest of the trio.

New York's collection of precocious starters is nearly as impressive

Fernandez's equal for much of the season, the Mets' Matt Harvey was likewise an All-Star, in fact starting the game in his home stadium for the National League.

Before he was sidelined with a partially torn UCL -- which will likely need Tommy John surgery -- Harvey was exceptionally dominant, winning his first four starts and completing five innings in every turn this season.

Waiting down on the farm are Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, who started for the U.S. and World teams, respectively, in this season's Futures Game minor league All-Star showcase.

And we all saw last night what Wheeler is capable of.

Desmond is right: There is a ton of pitching talent in the NL East, and it's likely only going to get better.

With hits harder and harder to come by across the league, the toughest gauntlet may yet be the one the Nationals must run each year. 

Mattheus rocked -- again

It seems that even low-leverage situations are a bit too much for reliever Ryan Mattheus right now. 

Summoned from the bullpen in the eighth inning with his team trailing by a score of 8-2, Mattheus allowed four hits, a walk, and three more runs, pumping his season ERA all the way up to 7.27. 

It was the third time in his last four appearances that he gave up multiple runs.

"He probably could have got out of that if Anthony [Rendon] throws the ball quicker. He probably gets out of that unscathed," said manager Davey Johnson, referencing Eric Young's infield single to third base that got the Mets offense snowballing against Mattheus.

"Things happen. You just gotta go back and battle. He wanted to continue, but I didn’t want him to throw that many pitches. He pitched the yesterday and then today."

"He’s gotta get it squared away."

He certainly does. 

Previously an effective and important part of the Nats bullpen -- he pitched to a 2.84 ERA over 101 total appearances the past two seasons -- Mattheus hasn't been the same since giving up five runs in a May loss at San Diego.

He punched a locker after leaving the field, breaking his pitching hand.

In his 13 appearances before that fateful outing, Mattheus had pitched well, allowing just four earned runs for a 2.35 ERA.

Since returning from a monthlong stint on the DL, he has allowed 12 earned runs in 12 appearances -- an 11.17 ERA. 

As that number would indicate, opposing batters are hitting an otherworldly .444/.528/.600 against Mattheus.

Should the Nats overcome this setback against the Mets and continue to climb back into contention, Johnson is likely to leave Mattheus in the bullpen as long as the outcome of the game is still in doubt.