Through all the subpar play and injuries this season, the Mets had been able to rely on Zack Wheeler just about every five days.
But on Tuesday, they couldn’t even count on that, as Wheeler delivered the worst outing of his career in a 14-3 loss to the Cubs at Citi Field that snapped the Mets’ four-game winning streak.
A day after Jacob deGrom pitched the Mets’ first complete game of the season, Wheeler gave up a career-high eight runs and was knocked out after just 1 ²/₃ innings, the shortest outing of his career.
Perhaps the Mets should have known it wasn’t going to be Wheeler’s night when he gave up a towering homer to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to start the game. Rizzo had never hit leadoff in the majors until Tuesday, but crushed the second pitch he saw deep into the black in center, clearing the Big Apple.
Wheeler briefly righted himself and struck out Ian Happ, Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward to end the inning.
The Mets, with Yoenis Cespedes back in the lineup and Michael Conforto sidelined again with a stiff back, tied the game in the bottom of the inning against Cubs starter Jon Lester, who entered the game with a 7.11 ERA away from Wrigley Field but shut the Mets down Tuesday.
Juan Lagares led off with a single to left and promptly stole second. The center fielder moved to third on Wilmer Flores’ grounder to second for Cespedes, who hit a ground-rule double to left.
Jay Bruce followed by whiffing and Neil Walker walked to bring up Lucas Duda, who also struck out to end the inning.
Then Wheeler imploded.
Chicago loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the second, but Wheeler was a strike away from escaping what turned into a seven-run inning unscathed. Instead, he walked Rizzo to force in a run.
The situation then got much worse.
After a visit from pitching coach Dan Warthen, Happ hit a grand slam to left-center to make it 6-1, and the Cubs weren’t done.
Bryant singled and stole second and Heyward reached on an infield hit. Both scored on a two-run double by Addison Russell, which knocked Wheeler from the game after he recorded just five outs.
Wheeler, in his first season back after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2015, will have his innings monitored throughout the season, but manager Terry Collins said before Tuesday’s game the team is not yet making decisions based on that.
If nothing else, Tuesday’s performance helped in that regard.
Virtually all signs were encouraging in Wheeler’s bounce-back season until Tuesday. He hadn’t surrendered more than three runs in an outing in his previous seven starts.
Before the game, Collins praised the right-hander.
“There was always talk about an innings limit, [but] he has to pitch, so he’s either gonna burn them here or he’s gonna burn them down there [in the minors],” Collins said. “So we said, ‘We might as well bring him up here’ and I’ll tell you, it’s a good thing we did because he’s pitched great for us.”
Until Tuesday, anyway.
Wheeler’s ineffectiveness created a long night for Josh Smoker, who lasted four innings and 82 pitches, the most he has thrown in the majors.
Lester limited the Mets to one run in seven innings and matched his season-high with 10 strikeouts.
Walker and Duda homered in the ninth for the Mets’ other two runs.