Top prospect Wheeler impressive in debut

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Zack Wheeler took the mound in the third inning Saturday for his first big league appearance, walked the first Nationals batter he faced and threw one of his next pitches to the backstop.

That was enough for catcher John Buck and third baseman David Wright to jog to the mound, seeking to calm their ace of the future.

Buck tried humor: "You a little amped up?" he asked. "Is your heart beating?"

"He kind of chuckled and was like, 'Yeah, just a little,'" Buck said. "It was kind of funny. He was a little shocked that I asked right in the middle of an intense moment."

The chat worked. Wheeler finished the third inning with consecutive strikeouts of Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy, both on fastballs clocked in the mid-90s, then generated three ground balls in a scoreless fourth. Relying heavily on his fastball and high-80s slider, Wheeler also dropped in two overhand curves in his outing.

"There wasn't really nerves," Wheeler said. "I was just a little pumped up going out there. After I got settled down, after the first couple of batters, I think everything went well."

"Yeah, he was amped up," Buck agreed. "He should be amped up."

Amped or not, Wheeler showcased the kind of pure stuff that has made him one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Manager Terry Collins reiterated Saturday that Wheeler will almost certainly begin the regular season back at Triple-A, though continued success can only accelerate his timetable.

"Obviously a great arm," was Collins' evaluation. "The first inning I'm sure he was all geeked up and he settled down. The second inning he really pounded the strike zone, which was pretty impressive to see."