PHILADELPHIA - Shortly after Mets righthander Zack Wheeler wrapped up a bullpen session last week, manager Terry Collins retreated to the dugout with a smile on his face.
Though the 23-year-old Wheeler has struggled through the first part of his first full season as a big-league pitcher, Collins has been reassured by the methodical way he has gone about getting back on track.
"He's close," Collins said at the time. "And he knows it.''
Now everybody else knows it, too.
In handcuffing the Phillies, 4-1, Thursday night, Wheeler flashed all the tools that have made it easy for the Mets to dream about what he might become.
His fastball consistently registered at 96 mph. His curveball caused knees to bend. His slider enticed hitters to chase. It was futile, especially after Wheeler finally turned his command from nemesis to ally.
"Easy when you can locate all your pitches and everything's working," said Wheeler (2-5), who struck out nine in 61/3 innings. "Everything just felt comfortable coming out of my hand."
When he wasn't striking somebody out, he was causing weak contact. He allowed four hits and no walks, only the second time in his 35 big-league starts that he has gone at least six innings without issuing a free pass.
Wheeler retired 14 in a row before allowing a seventh-inning homer by former Mets teammate Marlon Byrd. By then, the Mets had a 4-0 lead.
The slumping Chris Young drilled a two-run homer in the fourth off David Buchanan, who allowed four runs in his second big-league start. Curtis Granderson walked with the bases loaded in the fifth to drive in Wheeler, who began the inning with a single.
The Mets finished 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. They loaded the bases twice and picked up a hit neither time. But they took their third straight win since the Memorial Day ouster of hitting coach Dave Hudgens and reliever Jose Valverde.
Dominant pitching covered up the blemishes. Vic Black struck out three of the four batters he faced in relief. Jenrry Mejia whiffed all three batters he faced in nailing down his fifth save. Four Mets pitchers totaled 15 strikeouts.
"You're sitting in the dugout just saying 'wow,' " Collins said. "One after the other. Good stuff, good location, really a well-pitched game."
Travis d'Arnaud returned to the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion in the Subway Series, and Collins wasted little time in turning up the heat on him.
Before the game, the manager groused about the lack of offensive production from his catchers. D'Arnaud didn't help himself, dropping his average to .189 after going 0-for-4, including a double-play grounder with the bases loaded and nobody out. The Mets picked up the first run of the game, but d'Arnaud killed the potential for a larger rally.
Behind the plate, however, he helped produce Wheeler's best start of the season. "He pretty much took control," Collins said.
Wheeler had accepted his struggles as part of simply maturing into a big-league pitcher. Those lessons will surely continue. But for one night, he also felt the ease that comes with total command. Said Wheeler: "I can actually smile after a start now."