MLB.com's Anthony DiComo recently sat down with Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler to talk about his roots, his path to the big leagues and his goals for the future.
MLB.com: Zack, you made your debut a few months ago. Tell me about that night. You were in Atlanta, your home town, with a lot of friends and family around. Just tell me about that experience.
Wheeler: It was definitely fun to open up in my home city that I grew up in against the team that I was growing up watching. That was a lot of fun. I'm glad the Mets let me open up there. I had a lot of friends and family there, and I had a good time. It definitely made it better since I had a decent game.
MLB.com: Your two brothers were there, obviously. How big of an influence were they on you becoming a pitcher and getting into this?
Wheeler: It was definitely a big influence on me, sports-wise and personal. They helped me grow up. They always let me do stuff with them -- in the driveway when they were playing basketball and stuff. They were always too big for me, so they just threw me a whistle, let me be a little ref. Good times like that, you remember, and they always helped me out on the mental side of stuff. One brother, Adam, he played Minor League baseball, so he's been through it. And Jacob, he's had a tough life, so he knows the other side of it. He helps me get through all that kind of stuff. I can sit down and talk to either one of them whenever I want.
MLB.com: Since you made your big league debut, have you leaned on your brothers a lot? Do you talk with your family? I know you're close with them.
Wheeler: It's the same as the Minor Leagues. I chat with them here and there and try to stay as close with them as you can and talk with them as much as you can. But you've got a busy schedule. You're always at the field, so it's mainly just through texts.
MLB.com: When did you know you wanted to be a pitcher?
Wheeler: Sort of when I had to be a pitcher. Growing up I wasn't always the best. In Little League, I threw strikes, I was on the All-Star team and stuff, and I could play the field a little bit. But once I got out of that Little League stage and you have to start trying out for teams and doing travel ball stuff, I didn't quite mature as fast as everybody else. I wasn't always so strong, I didn't throw as hard and I wasn't as fast. I didn't get picked up for teams, so I'd always have to go to the crappy team, where they just needed to fill spots. In my 16-year-old year, I started playing for East Cobb -- I had played for them before, but I just played on crappy teams. The guy who runs it gave me a chance to be on his team. My brother played for him, so he knew what I was going to be like once I matured a little bit, and that summer I started growing and getting a little bit stronger. He helped me out, and that's when I really took the next step in being a pitcher only,and throwing a little harder and throwing strikes.
MLB.com: You improved a lot from there, obviously. You were drafted in the first round. At what point did you think you could make it to this level and succeed at this level?
Wheeler: Honestly, probably not even until after I got drafted would I have thought I would be up here. If I would have gotten drafted my junior year, I probably would not have been drafted very high, because I was throwing 90-92 in the first two innings, then I would drop off to like the high 80s and I didn't have any secondary pitches. So I didn't play basketball my senior year, which is probably my favorite sport to play, and that killed me. But I knew it was better for me. I gained 15 pounds of muscle, and I started throwing harder, and I lasted seven innings and I was throwing 95-97 the whole game. So that's really when I jumped up.
MLB.com: Do you remember your first reaction when you got traded to the Mets? Obviously it was the big news story of the day -- Carlos Beltran going to the Giants and you going to the Mets. Do you remember what it was like -- that feeling of being traded for Carlos Beltran?
Wheeler: It's part of baseball. It's going to happen. I knew it was going to be a good opportunity for me over here. Honestly, I didn't know anything about the Mets, really. I did some research and asked some questions. I knew their starting pitching wasn't the strongest. I'm not trying to diss anybody, but the Giants, they had five pitchers who could possibly be No. 1 starters. I would be a back-end of the rotation guy over there. And I knew once I came over here that I had a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation guy. It's a lot better when you do that kind of stuff.
MLB.com: You just spoke to it a little bit, but you're part of the solution here, along with a lot of guys -- a lot of young pitchers coming up. Matt Harvey came up last summer, you came up this summer -- how much pressure is that on yourself to be a big part of the future, not only this year, but in the next 5-10 years?
Wheeler: It's no pressure on me. The fans or the media or whoever may think they're putting that pressure on me, they may think that a lot of pressure is on me. But I don't have any at all. I just go out there and pitch the best that I can. Hopefully, it goes well every time out, and I can stay healthy and be out there and help the team win down the road.
MLB.com: What was your reaction this week when you heard that Harvey got injured?
Wheeler: Like I said before, it's terrible news. You never want to hear of something like that happening to you or to anybody. And Matt's a great guy and he's a competitor, so I think he'll be back stronger than he was when he was here.
MLB.com: How has your relationship with him -- and everyone on the staff -- grown since you've been up here, since June?
Wheeler: I got the chance to meet everybody in Spring Training, and everybody is awesome. They talk to you, and they don't "big league," I guess you could say. So it's nice, when you first come up here, you don't know anybody, you don't know the routine and all that kind of stuff. They can kind of help you out and show you the ropes.
MLB.com: Did you have any of those "Welcome to the big leagues moments," where you look around and say, "Wow, I'm really here?"
Wheeler: No, not really. Just going to different stadiums -- the lights are on, the fans are in the stands, yelling and screaming and stuff like that -- that's when you sort of are like, "Man, I'm here, I made it. I've got to work hard to stay here."
MLB.com: Which was your favorite stadium so far?
Wheeler: Probably Dodger Stadium.
MLB.com: Why's that?
Wheeler: Because it's L.A. Fans everywhere, celebrities in the stands, good weather out there, too. I love it.
MLB.com: You've had some success at Turner Field. You've had some success against the Braves. How have your friends back home reacted to that?
Wheeler: Every time I've pitched against them, I've done well. So after every time, I've been getting texts from friends and family saying, "Why are you trying to beat up on our Braves?" I could really care less. It's not my team.
MLB.com: What's the biggest thing you've improved upon or you've been working on since you've been up here?
Wheeler: Just my command. Probably, really, attacking hitters -- just going right after guys. Hit it if you can. Just trusting your stuff.
MLB.com: What are your goals now -- for the rest of the season, first of all -- and going forward into 2014?
Wheeler: I think it's just keeping that same mindset, just going right after guys and just attacking them and trusting your stuff.
MLB.com: Harvey obviously laid out a blueprint last year. When you come up and have the same type of success you're having now, going into next year, do you think you can sort of follow that path?
Wheeler: I really don't look at that kind of stuff. Everybody is like, "You're going to follow in Matt Harvey's footsteps." I'm going to do the best that I can and the best ability that I can. You can't look at it like, "Oh, I'm going to try to do better than him, or I'm going to try to do the same thing as him." That's when you start getting stuck, trying to do too much. Everybody tries to compare us. We aren't the same. We both go out there and compete to the best that we can. He's happened to have a great year and a half or whatever, and I'm going to try and go out there and do the best that I can next year and try and help the team win.