PHILADELPHIA -- Zack Wheeler cannot explain what was different, what changed. He has no idea how he was suddenly able to command all his pitches -- including his on-again, off-again slider -- throughout 6 1/3 dominant innings against the Phillies.
All Wheeler knows is that he won for the first time in eight starts Thursday night, striking out nine Phillies and retiring 14 in a row during the middle innings of a 4-1 Mets victory at Citizens Bank Park.
"It feels really good, obviously," Wheeler said. "I can actually smile after a start now."
The win was the third straight for the Mets and their fourth in five games, on the first night of an 11-game road trip through Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. More importantly for the team, it hinted at better things to come.
Tantalizing the organization with his potential for most of the last calendar year, Wheeler suddenly put everything together Thursday, growing dominant after giving up a leadoff single to Ben Revere in the first. He struck out the next five batters he faced, then, after giving up a pair of two-out hits in the second, proceeded to retire 14 consecutive Phillies.
Former Mets outfielder Marlon Byrd finally ended that streak with an opposite-field solo homer in the seventh, chasing Wheeler. But that could not spoil the young righty's best outing of the season.
"You're going to see nights like that out of him," manager Terry Collins said. "He certainly has that ability, as we've seen in the past. He came into that reputation of dominating a game, and tonight he dominated this game."
The Mets scattered enough offense to back him against Phillies starter David Buchanan, doing half their damage against the rookie on Chris Young's two-run homer in the fourth. New York scored its first run off Buchanan when Travis d'Arnaud hit into a bases-loaded double play in the second, and its last when the rookie walked Curtis Granderson to force in a run in the fifth.
The Phillies could not match that output, and once Wheeler left the game, whatever chance they had seemed to evaporate. Combining on the final seven outs, right-handers Vic Black and Jenrry Mejia struck out six.
"That's pretty impressive," Collins said.
The Phillies bemoaned all that, of course. But, as catcher Carlos Ruiz said, "We have to give credit to that guy -- he was pitching real well."
"That guy" was Wheeler, who delivered his finest performance of 2014. About the only thing that Wheeler lacked on this night was efficiency, needing 108 pitches to record 19 outs. The right-hander's longest outing this year remains the 6 2/3 innings he submitted in his previous start against the D-backs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his recent run of success has coincided with some much improved control. After walking 11 over a two-start stretch earlier this season, Wheeler has issued a total of three free passes in his three starts since. He did not walk a batter in Thursday's victory.
Earlier this month, Collins spoke at length about the learning curve for most young pitchers. His team grew a bit spoiled when Matt Harvey debuted in 2012 and began dominating almost immediately, and Wheeler has not enjoyed as smooth of a ride.
That is why Collins considered Thursday night's win so important.
"Not only did he do it," Collins said, "he knows he can do it now."
Now he must figure out how to do it again, bottling this type of outing and uncorking it every fifth day. When asked how Wheeler might be able to do so, Collins called it "a good question." Wheeler shrugged his shoulders when asked if he did anything differently than he has in the past, explaining that he simply had command of all his pitches. In essence, the ball was doing what Wheeler wanted it to do.
But there is more than his success to that. After a loss in Washington two weekends ago, Wheeler admitted that he had become too predictable in his pitch selection. He has been "mixing it up like crazy" ever since, in his words, and the results have been plain to see.
Over his past two starts, Wheeler holds a 2.08 ERA with 16 strikeouts and one walk.
"He's got to look in the mirror and say, 'Holy cow, I think I'm going to do that again,'" Collins said. "He's got to get himself prepared … and he needs to do it again."