NEW YORK -- The daydream of any Mets fan was to sit at Citi Field on a brilliant sunny Sunday afternoon, drink in one hand, David Wright bobblehead in the other. On the mound would be Zack Wheeler, still dealing deep into his Citi Field debut.
The reality was something far less utopian. Under dreary gray skies and a few moments of drizzle, backup catcher Anthony Recker threw batting-practice fastballs in the ninth inning Sunday. It was that type of game for the Mets, who never recovered from Wheeler's struggles in a 13-2 loss to the Nationals, their most lopsided defeat of the season.
"Certainly," manager Terry Collins said, "it was not how we scripted it out to be."
Though Wheeler cruised through a perfect first inning, peppering the strike zone with upper-90s fastballs and whiffing the first two men he faced -- snapshots of his vast potential -- trouble struck when Adam LaRoche smashed his first pitch of the second off the facing of the Pepsi Porch in right field. Wheeler appeared to unravel after that, walking Jayson Werth and giving up RBI hits to Ian Desmond, Kurt Suzuki and Denard Span.
Werth launched another solo home run off Wheeler in the third, who settled down briefly before putting runners on the corners with two outs in the fifth, which ended his afternoon. In his third career start and first at Citi Field, Wheeler gave up a total of five runs on six hits and two walks, striking out five.
"I'm starting to learn the hard way that you can't get away with mistakes up here," he said.
The key, Wheeler said, was a complete absence of fastball command. He pointed to that same issue last time out in Chicago as well, though it was overshadowed by the Mets' subsequent revelation that they believed their young starter was tipping pitches.
Unlike that night, the Mets on Sunday could not take Wheeler off the hook for his first loss. Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez was simply too good, retiring eight straight after Wright' first-inning walk, then setting down another nine in a row after Wright's leadoff double in the fourth.
An inning after a stalled comeback attempt in the seventh, the Nationals jumped on Brandon Lyon for four doubles, a walk and Suzuki's two-run homer, obliterating any chance of late magic. By the ninth, Recker was pitching in an effort to save the bullpen.
Most of the 33,366 fans in attendance were gone by then, which made plenty of sense. They had poured into Citi Field in large part for their first glimpse of Wheeler, the starting pitcher everyone has been crowing about for the better part of two years. What they saw was an unfinished product -- a reminder that aces do not always reach the big leagues as ready-made as Matt Harvey did. Wheeler all but admitted it himself, puzzling over why his fastball command abandoned him.
"I don't care who you are," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "When you get behind in this league, it doesn't matter if you throw 100 like Harvey or 80 like [Jamie] Moyer. It's tough to pitch when you are behind."
Zimmerman went on to say the same thing most hitters do: "As far as stuff goes, he has a chance to be very good." That's why Wheeler is considered one of the primo prospects in all of baseball, the type of player who can develop into an ace. He's just not there yet, as the 10 walks and nine runs over his first 16 big league innings clearly demonstrated.
Though Wheeler succeeded in his debut in Atlanta, his five free passes were troubling. A week later, the Mets determined that Wheeler was tipping pitches, prompting a private tutoring session this week from pitching coach Dan Warthen.
All parties are confident that the issue is resolved, but Collins wonders if all the tinkering -- arm slots, glove positions and the like -- adversely affected Wheeler in Sunday's game. By the middle innings, his signature upper-90s fastball was down a few ticks, prompting a fair bit of concern as the Nats teed off on him.
The key, Collins said, will be for Wheeler to ignore all the voices and extra scrutiny, which come with the territory of being a top prospect. Only then will he be able to realize his still-immeasurable potential.
"This guy's been here two weeks, and all of the sudden, we're trying to tweak something," Collins said. "That's not very fair. You've got to go let him be himself -- try to let him understand that you've got to throw strikes, but you've got to be yourself out there. The rest of it will end up getting all worked together."