WASHINGTON -- Before each of Zack Wheeler's last two starts, Mets manager Terry Collins implored the vibrantly talented young pitcher to prove his fortitude. To show evidence of growth. To take the next step in his development.
Wheeler responded each time by coming up short. He walked a career-high six and, despite a healthy lead, could not finish five innings last time out against the Yankees. Then he served up a pair of critical two-out, two-run hits to Wilson Ramos in Sunday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals.
Each time Wheeler had a chance to keep Sunday's game within his control, he faltered.
"Obviously, guys are starting to figure me out a little bit," Wheeler said. "I was thinking after I came out, I might be a little predictable right now."
Wheeler's first opportunity to reverse his troubles unfolded in the third at Nationals Park, after Ruben Tejada's fielding error gave Washington two baserunners with two outs. The right-hander responded by serving up a two-run double to Ramos, which resulted in a 3-1 Nationals lead.
Two innings later, Ramos came to the plate after Wheeler loaded the bases on two hits and a walk. The catcher smoked a two-run single down the left-field line, all but putting the game out of reach.
"He told us the last couple of days that he felt good," Nationals manager Matt Williams said of Ramos, who recently returned from injury.
Added Wheeler: "He got me today."
Wheeler gave up one other run in six innings, on Ian Desmond's homer leading off the second. Two of the five runs charged to him were unearned -- part of a sloppy performance in which the Mets committed two fielding errors and made a pair of baserunning blunders that resulted in outs.
With Juan Lagares once again entrenched as their center-field starter, the Mets did spark a comeback attempt against Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann, when Lagares singled home a run in the sixth. But after the next batter, Juan Centeno, singled in another, the Nationals cut down Centeno trying to stretch his hit into a double. Zimmermann gave up three runs in six innings, and the Mets never threatened against Washington's varsity bullpen trio of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano.
For Wheeler, who displayed marked improvement throughout his first 17 big league starts last season, this year has been a step in the opposite direction. Wheeler's walk rate has spiked, his efficiency has taken a hit and his overall results -- 1-4 with a 4.53 ERA -- have reflected that.
The Mets were spoiled last year, when Matt Harvey buzzed through his first full big league season with no apparent learning curve. Wheeler, by contrast, has struggled.
"After you get here, the one thing you've got to realize is that the scouting reports are out on you," Collins said. "And so there's some adjusting you have to make. They all know he's got a good arm, and some teams, like this team, have seen him a couple times. Now you've really got to make good pitches."
Both Collins and Wheeler both insisted that the issue is not ability, but process and execution. Wheeler said he felt "great -- probably the best I've felt all year" in the loss, and his manager lauded the quality of his pitches. The issue, Wheeler hypothesized, may be that his game plans are growing stale.
Both pitches that Ramos hit were near the inside corner of the strike zone, the fifth-inning single perhaps even a little off it. But Ramos turned on both fastballs, leading Wheeler to believe he needs to mix up the way he attacks opposing hitters -- particularly those who have now seen him two or three times over the past 11 months.
"That's what I was thinking afterward," Wheeler said. "A couple of good pitches that I made, they were right on them just because they were expecting the fastball."
If the adjustments are that simple, the Mets need Wheeler to make them immediately. Though their rotation has been solid all season, that group's most reliable pitcher, Dillon Gee, is on the disabled list. Jon Niese endured his worst outing of the year this weekend and Bartolo Colon has been wildly inconsistent. At the back end, the Mets are testing out a pair of rookies who both debuted last week.
They are playing roughly .500 ball, but have not shown much ability to vault beyond that level.
Steps forward from Wheeler would point them in that direction.
"We've been inconsistent," third baseman David Wright said. "It seems like we go through a stretch where we play well, and then go through a stretch where we don't play so well. Granted, it's impossible to play your best baseball every day, but there's got to be some sort of gray area where we're able to squeak out a win when we're not playing well, and it doesn't seem like we're doing that."