Zack Wheeler made one tweak and looked like last year’s pitcher again

ATLANTA — Zack Wheeler proved right on time Friday night, here at his hometown ballpark.

Right on time with his delivery. Right on time with a performance to give his bullpen teammates a little blow and lower those raised eyebrows about his 2019.

And this young Mets season to march forward, crisis-free.

With a fastball that reached triple digits, the Georgia native defeated the Braves, 6-2 at SunTrust Park, for his first win of the year and the Mets’ third straight. Wheeler’s first two starts of the campaign, both against the Nationals, went poorly enough — mediocre on March 31 in Washington, then downright terrible April 7 at Citi Field — that a third straight underwhelmer would have elevated questions about his trajectory during his walk year.

Instead, thanks to between-starts work with Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland, Wheeler looked closer to, if not as good as, the resurgent guy who posted a 2.06 ERA over his final 15 starts last season, striking out 100 and walking 24 in 100 ⅔ innings.

“He’s got to feel good about that outing,” Mickey Callaway said. “It was a great outing. And we needed it.”

Callaway called the game “the most stress-free win we had all year,” as his newsmaking pregame decisions — resting hot rookie Pete Alonso and dropping Brandon Nimmo from leadoff to eighth — both paid off handsomely; Alonso’s backup Dom Smith contributed a single, double and walk, while Nimmo slammed the game-winning, two-run homer in the second inning and added a single and double.

The Mets tied their franchise record by scoring six times in a sixth consecutive game — ironically, they set that mark in September 2007, which is better remembered for a certain collapse — and as Wheeler said, “All you have to do is keep these guys off the board and we’re going to score runs every night.”

He notably failed to keep the Nats off the board last week, walking seven and allowing seven runs and four hits over 4 ⅔ innings as his ERA shot up to 10.24. With Eiland urging him to work slower out of the windup, Wheeler did his video work on Friday, comparing his delivery this year to last year with a stopwatch.

“Way faster” this year, Wheeler noted. “I slowed myself down, and I was more consistent today.”

He threw a 101 mph fastball to Josh Donaldson in the first inning, and Donaldson actually ripped it into right field for a single. The opening frame proved to be Wheeler’s toughest challenge, as the Braves loaded the bases with one out thanks to a single and two walks. When Wheeler escaped the jam by allowing just one run,

“I was good to go after that,” he said.

If he didn’t dominate, with the second his only 1-2-3 inning, the second, he deftly dodged in and out of trouble, holding the Braves hitless in four at-bats (plus a walk and sacrifice fly) with runners in scoring position.

“You know what, great job by him and Dave to diagnose what went wrong [in the prior starts],” Callaway said.

His final pitch of the night, a 97 mph fastball, eluded Braves veteran Charlie Culberson for another K, and Callaway greeted him in the visitors dugout with a handshake. If the moment couldn’t match the fireworks of the offensive beatdown displayed by Wheeler’s teammates with bats, it carried greater meaning nonetheless. More relief.

Now 2-0 on this critical, 10-game road swing, the Mets (9-4) remained atop the National League East, a half-game ahead of the Phillies, still right on time in this win-now campaign, another hurdle leaped with the Wheeler correction. After what they’ve experienced the prior two years, they’ve earned the right to celebrate each one of those.

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