ATLANTA -- When Zack Wheeler debuted last June at Turner Field, his nerves were frayed. Family drove in from across his home state of Georgia to watch Wheeler pitch. And he accomplished far more than seemed possible for a 23-year-old rookie, blanking the Braves for six innings.
"If he got through that," Mets manager Terry Collins said before Wheeler's second start of 2014, "he can get through this."
He did, of course, though Wheeler is unlikely to remember this one when his playing days are through. Again pitching in front of family and friends at Turner Field, Wheeler gave up four runs in five innings Wednesday during a 4-3 loss to the Braves, who parlayed Ervin Santana's eight shutout innings in his debut into victory.
"I was feeling good there for a little bit," Wheeler said. "They just strung together a few good hits."
Wheeler's trouble began immediately, when leadoff man Jason Heyward fouled off six pitches before crushing a homer to center field, which gave the Braves a lead they would never relinquish. Though Wheeler avoided further damage in the first inning thanks to a fine catch by center fielder Juan Lagares, his night continued to devolve.
In the fifth, Wheeler gave up a leadoff double to Evan Gattis, a single to Santana, an RBI hit to Heyward and a two-run single to Freddie Freeman. The Mets removed Wheeler after that, mostly because he had thrown 96 pitches in five innings.
"I was aggressive today," Wheeler said. "That was my goal coming into this year was to be aggressive. Sometimes when you miss with your pitches, they take advantage of it. Sometimes they don't."
Compare that to Santana, who was deadly efficient over eight scoreless innings. Throwing 20 consecutive strikes to start the game, Santana gave up merely three hits -- singles by Lucas Duda and David Wright, and a double by Daniel Murphy -- needing only 88 pitches over the eight innings. Had it been later in the summer, with more work under his belt, Santana easily might have scored a complete game.
"Honestly, no," Santana said when asked if he expected such efficiency. "In the bullpen, I was all over the place. But when I stepped [between] the lines, I was focused and just threw strikes."
The Mets nearly forged a comeback against Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel in the ninth, drawing within one on a two-run single by Lagares and an RBI knock by Travis d'Arnaud. But Kimbrel, as three-time All-Star closers are wont to do, recovered to strike out Ruben Tejada with the tying run on third.
Afterward, the Mets more or less collectively tipped their caps. Though Wheeler certainly could have pitched better, his effort would have given the Mets a superb chance to win on most other nights. He and the Mets knew that they did not so much lose this game as the Braves won it.
Consider Heyward's at-bat in the first, for example. After falling into a 1-2 count, Heyward fouled off a pitch, took two consecutive balls -- including one that nearly grazed the outer edge of the strike zone -- and then fouled off four more pitches before connecting on his homer. Heyward saw four more pitches in that at-bat than Santana threw in the entire top of the first.
The Mets, by contrast, never really threatened until the ninth. When Eric Young drew a walk against Walden, it was the first time all game that their leadoff hitter reached base. Only twice did a Mets player reach second base against Santana, each time with two outs. And so just as Bartolo Colon dismantled the Braves in Tuesday's series opener, Santana returned the favor Wednesday. The entire game took only two hours and 40 minutes, and would have been significantly shorter had the Mets not rallied in the ninth.
Much of that was due to a Mets offense that, with a 6-for-33 performance, dropped to a .190 team batting average on the season.
"There's no easy answer," Collins said. "The issue is, no matter what the count is, we're not doing any damage with pitches. We're hitting ground balls to short. We're hitting routine fly balls to center. We've got to start getting the ball squared up on the barrel of the bat."