Debut Tuesday: Two Heralded Prospects Get the Call

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images Zack Wheeler

There’s something about big-league debuts in baseball that makes them different than first games in any sport. Maybe it’s the anticipation built up through years of minor league toil. Maybe it’s the wide range of possible outcomes, from no-hitters to Golden Sombreros. From Junior to Strasmas, baseball fans know to drop everything when a big-time rookie finally gets the call.

The promotions of Wil Myers and Zack Wheeler garnered a tiny fraction of the buzz reserved for the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Ken Griffey Jr. — rightfully so. But with both players getting their first taste of the show on the same day, there was no way we weren’t going to watch.

The 22-year-old Myers made his grand entrance first, starting in right field and batting sixth for the Rays in the first of two games at a doubleheader Tuesday in Boston. Tampa Bay’s offense had gone ice-cold from the moment we praised their weeks-long run, and while questions remained over Myers’s contact rate, his ability to hit right-handed pitching, and whether his defense was up to snuff given the relatively short time he’d spent in the minors as an everyday right fielder, the likely passing of the Super Two deadline combined with renewed questions about the lineup nudged the thrifty Rays to make the call. And hey, if Rays fans were looking for signs of hope, the Internet offered two good ones: Rays PR ace Jonathan Gantt’s comparison of Myers’s minor league numbers (.300/.389/.522 in 445 games) to those of Evan Longoria (.301/.386/.534 in 205 games) pre-call-up and this crazy-fun top-10 Myers highlight reel.

Myers would get his first chance to hit in the top of the second. Spot starter Alfredo Aceves, called up from Pawtucket to take the hill, walked the first two batters in the inning. There are two schools of thought when something like that happens: Take a couple pitches to make the pitcher prove he can throw strikes, or swing from the heels at the first good-looking pitch you see, on the theory that he’ll chuck a get-me-over fastball to get ahead in the count. Myers chose the latter. It wasn’t a bad pitch to hit by any means, a 92-mph fastball middle-out. Myers just couldn’t do anything with it, popping out to center on that first pitch. In hindsight it did look bad, as Aceves was nowhere near the plate for most of the next two plate appearances, falling behind Luke Scott 3-1 before allowing a run-scoring double, then missing wildly against light-hitting Jose Molina to load the bases. Yunel Escobar would hit into an inning-ending double play to hold the Rays at one run, but you wonder what might’ve been had Myers at least gone deeper into the count.

Top of the fourth, one out, nobody on. This time, Myers shows more patience. Aceves is still nowhere near the strike zone, missing badly on his first two pitches. Myers works the count to 3-2, gets another middle-out, 92-mph fastball — a carbon copy of the one he got his first time up — and flies out to right.

The rest of the game is an exercise in Red Sox dominance. David Ortiz strokes a two-run single to snap a 1-1 tie in the third when Joe Maddon elected not to intentionally walk Ortiz, after getting burned a few days earlier by intentionally walking … Jeff Francoeur. Then Boston beat the Rays at their own shift game, turning a Luke Scott line drive through the right side in the fourth into a routine 4-3 groundout thanks to Dustin Pedroia standing in the exact right spot on the outfield grass. The hyperactive Chris Archer throws 109 pitches in 4⅔ command-challenged innings, jumps around on seemingly every other play, and makes you wonder how he ever took this picture, and then Andrew Miller works Myers like a speed bag in the sixth, catching him looking on a spectacular backdoor slider for strike three.

By game’s end, Tampa Bay had endured a two-hour, 59-minute rain delay, the fourth start in nine games in which a Rays starter had failed to get through five innings, an 0-for-4 by Myers, and an ugly 5-1 loss to the first-place Red Sox. Myers did manage his first major league hit in the nightcap on a clean single to left. But the Rays’ offense fell silent again, going scoreless for the first eight innings, tying the game in the ninth on a Kelly Johnson solo shot, then losing in the bottom of the ninth on one of the best walk-off celebrations you’ll ever see. The loss was the Rays’ eighth in their past 10 games and their ninth in 11 games against Boston this year, leaving them seven games behind the Red Sox, just a game over .500, and just a game and a half ahead of the once dead-and-buried Jays. With the starting rotation improbably ranking among the worst in baseball and stiff competition up and down the division, the Rays could need a lot more than a decent cameo from their latest hyped prospect.

Mets fans scoff at such complaints. The team is on its way to its fifth straight losing season, the lineup is stuffed with Double-A-caliber talent, and the bullpen has been awful for three years running. But Tuesday offered Metropolitan enthusiasts a rare glimpse of a brighter future.

Before Wheeler could make his debut, the Mets called on their other phenom, Matt Harvey. The game was glorious, stupefying, maddening, and, in the end, a huge relief.

The flame-throwing right-hander had already put up Cy Young–level numbers through his first 14 starts of the year, highlighted by a 10-strikeout, no-run, one-hit, seven-inning gem his first time out and a 12-strikeout, one-hit, no-run performance on May 7 against the White Sox, the only blemish over nine innings coming on an infield hit. His first six innings against the Braves Tuesday might have topped those and every other one of Harvey’s killer highlights this year. He recorded 18 swinging strikes on his first 80 pitches thrown. The curveball he deployed to strike out Jordan Schafer in the sixth was obscene, though not nearly as filthy as the 90 mph slider that rung up Reed Johnson, a pitch that plunged to his ankles and likely crushed his soul forever.

At that point, the pitch count hawks started squawking. How long should Harvey stay in? Were the Mets thinking about Johan Santana’s no-hitter, the one that took 134 pitches to complete but also preceded a season- and potentially career-ending shoulder injury? In a way, it’s encouraging to see everyone from managers to the masses thinking about injury prevention and pitcher preservation, in a way that neither did before. But when alarms are getting sounded at the mere hint of a possibility of a pitch count-related decision two-plus innings later, on a strapping, perfectly healthy 24-year-old who has struck out 12 through six innings and is in complete control of the game and himself, we’ve probably swung too far in the other direction.

That debate became moot in the seventh, when Lucas Duda’s indecision clinched Jason Heyward’s safe slide into first (it was to avoid a tag, so we’ll allow it), netting the Braves their first hit of the game and the Mets their first cringe-worthy moment of the game. This was the story of the Mets season, in one animated incident of buffoonery: Harvey trying his damnedest to bail out his team, only to have his teammates mess it up. (One of the most depressing stats for the Mets: Heading into Tuesday’s games, Harvey and David Wright had combined to net about six and a half wins above replacement — about three times what every other Met combined had delivered to the cause.) Mercifully, Harvey wouldn’t end the game with his second nine-innings-and-one-infield-hit performance of the year. Two misplays by Wright, combined with some shaky work by the always suspect pen, nearly cost the Mets the game. But Bobby Parnell tossed 1⅓ innings of killer relief, striking out Chris Johnson on a vicious slider with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth, preserving a 4-3 lead that New York wouldn’t give up.

The 23-year-old Wheeler wasn’t quite as sharp as Harvey. But he did fire six scoreless innings of his own, which, combined with the Mets scoring six times between the seventh and eighth, proved enough to complete an impressive road doubleheader sweep.

You could see both Wheeler’s strengths and weaknesses on display from the start. He started his evening by issuing a leadoff walk to Andrelton Simmons. When he went to 2-0 on no. 2 hitter Jason Heyward, Wright jogged over to the mound, fake-kicked at the dirt, and said something to Wheeler that made the rookie crack a big smile. Five pitches later, Wheeler had his first major league strikeout, fanning Heyward on a 97 mph fastball, up and just enough off the outside corner to land out of Heyward’s reach.

This was a theme Wheeler would repeat often throughout the game. Two batters after the Heyward strikeout came a four-pitch walk to Freddie Freeman, with ball four a pitch that nearly sailed to the backstop. But Wheeler’s tailing fastball — regarded as by far his best pitch — didn’t disappoint. That was the pitch that got Brian McCann in the second (96), the one that mowed down Chris Johnson two batters later (96), and the one that clipped the outside corner against Paul Maholm (96 again) to wrap Wheeler’s first-ever three-strikeout inning.

Wheeler walked Simmons again to lead off the third, struggling that inning to locate his curve and slider. The 3-2 fastball to get Justin Upton for the second out of the inning, though? Yet another belt-high, tailing fastball — this one at 97 — that few, if any, hitters could hope to reach. And while Wheeler got by mostly on killer velocity early on, both his command and game plan improved as the game wore on. He broke two bats on inside fastballs, firing pitches right at catcher Anthony Recker’s targets. When McCann came up in a big spot with the score tied 0-0, a runner on second, and one out, Wheeler started pounding in more fastballs. When McCann looked like he might have a read on the heater, Wheeler grasped the hitter’s timing and first-base-open situation and unleashed a nasty, biting curve in the dirt. McCann was awarded a walk, though replays suggested he may have gone around for strike three. Either way, it was a great sign for a young pitcher learning how to pitch.

After a mound consultation, Wheeler got a chance to work out of his own jam. Running the count to 2-2 on Dan Uggla, Wheeler again threw an unpredictable pitch, a wicked, 90 mph slider that the Braves second baseman swung through for strike three. Since throwing his third- (or fourth-) best pitch for strike three in the biggest spot of the game wasn’t quite enough, Wheeler slung a 1-0 fastball right in on Chris Johnson’s fists, inducing an inning-ending popout and preserving the rookie’s six shutout innings.

The end result was a 6-1 Mets win, the fifth-ever MLB debut of six-plus innings and no runs for a Mets starter, and a Grade-A beer shower from his teammates at game’s end. More than that, the day offered a glimmer of hope for a franchise that sorely needed one. One Mets fan on Twitter described the doubleheader sweep and the knockout performances by Harvey and Wheeler as the team’s best day since clinching the NL East in 2006. “Better than the Santana no-no, the only no-hitter ever thrown in the franchise’s 51-year history?” I asked. “This is better,” he replied. A no-hitter is fleeting, he said, but this could be the day he and his orange-and-blue-wearing pals look back upon in a few years.

Let’s hope so. For Mets fans, the past has been filled mostly with heartache and loss. Here’s to a bright Harvey-and-Wheeler future.

Filed Under: MLB, New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri