Former Augusta GreenJacket Zack Wheeler wins his major league debut

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ATLANTA — Zack Wheeler’s outing Tuesday in Atlanta wasn’t the first time the tall right-hander returned to his Georgia roots for a debut.

New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler pitches in the first inning in the second baseball game of the doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves Tuesday, June 18, 2013, in Atlanta.  TODD KIRKLAND/ASSOCIATED PRESS
TODD KIRKLAND/ASSOCIATED PRESS
New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler pitches in the first inning in the second baseball game of the doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves Tuesday, June 18, 2013, in Atlanta.

After earning a spot in the top 10 of the draft at a Georgia high school, and progressing as a first-year professional in Augusta, Wheeler’s toe returned to a rubber in Georgia dirt at Turner Field on Tuesday, making his major league debut for the New York Mets against the Braves in front of family and friends.

Wheeler made the most of it, throwing six scoreless innings on four hits en route to a 6-1 Mets’ win. He settled in after a shaky first inning and worked effectively from the stretch, totaling five walks but seven strikeouts.

“It was definitely an experience,” Wheeler said. “I settled down and was able to find my rhythm, and I threw pitches for strikes.”

Wheeler, selected sixth overall by the San Francisco Giants in the 2009 draft out of East Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., made his pro debut for the Augusta GreenJackets in 2010. In his second start as a pro, he toed a rubber in Georgia dirt at Lake Olmstead Stadium, striking out five over three innings against the Charleston RiverDogs.

The Georgia native would go on to earn a 3.99 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 58⅔ innings for the GreenJackets.

Wheeler was shipped to the Mets in exchange for outfielder Carlos Beltran in 2011, a move the Giants made at the trade deadline in an attempt to gain offense down the stretch. The trade resulted in Wheeler going from California to Florida during the season.

After a season between Binghamton and Buffalo in 2012, Wheeler had pitched all of 2013 at the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas, recording a 3.93 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings.

Wheeler, ranked first in the Mets system by Baseball America and eighth among the top-100 prospects in the game, said he grew up watching Braves legends such as Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux. He found himself in the same Turner Field locker room during Monday’s introductory press conference that was used during his pre-draft workout in 2009.

Like the changeup grip he used in Augusta, Wheeler’s career reached full circle with an official announcement from the Mets on Friday that he would make his first major league start in Georgia.

“I had nerves, but also the emotions of being in Atlanta for my first start,” he said. “It was a good experience. They were loud.”

The 23-year-old Wheeler averaged 96 miles per hour on his fastball, utilizing a hard slider that reached 90 and a softer curveball. He totaled 14 swings and misses, 12 on the fastball.

Wheeler walked two in the first and allowed a baserunner in every inning, but he retired all but three Braves batters with runners on base.

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