NEW YORK -- More than a month ago, Zack Wheeler made his highly anticipated Major League debut against the Braves in his hometown of Atlanta. Since then, his young big league career has been a series of tests. Learning how to command his fastball and retire hitters early in counts at this level have been points the Mets want to see Wheeler perfect.
Facing the Braves for the second time on Thursday, Wheeler showed he hasn't done that just yet. But he's making strides toward doing so.
The 23-year-old missed his location in a couple of spots and Atlanta took advantage with two home runs, but Wheeler pitched well enough to earn his fourth win of the season and his first at Citi Field in the Mets' 7-4 win over the Braves.
"He's a work in progress, but I tell you one thing, the sky is the limit with him," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He's got plus stuff. He's tougher than people give him credit for. He's going to be fine, but he has to make some adjustments."
David Aardsma, LaTroy Hawkins and Bobby Parnell combined to pitch three scorless innings to shut down Atlanta.
Wheeler allowed four runs (three earned) on four hits with two walks and five strikeouts over six innings and 95 pitches -- an impressive mark, considering 31 of those came in the first inning.
Meanwhile, the Mets' offense put together a couple of big innings to assure Wheeler the victory.
Eric Young Jr. and Daniel Murphy hit consecutive singles starting off the third inning. Young scored on an RBI single by Marlon Byrd while Murphy crossed home on a groundout by Justin Turner. John Buck, who's hitting .349 in his last 11 games, then hit a two-run single to give the Mets a 4-1 lead.
"I think I just shortened up a little bit," Buck said of his recent production at the plate. "A lot of them haven't been extra-base hits, they've been singles, just driving in runs. I think that's probably been the biggest thing, just cutting back a little bit and taking what I get."
The Braves responded in the top of the fourth, when Wheeler left a fastball over the plate and Dan Uggla hit it just over the left-field wall for a two-run home run. Atlanta then tied it at 4 in the sixth, when Freddie Freeman hit a home run over the center-field wall.
But the tie wouldn't last long. An RBI single by Murphy in the bottom of the sixth, followed by a controversial RBI triple to center field by David Wright put the Mets up, 6-4.
Braves center fielder Reed Johnson immediately called for a ground-rule double, but the hit was ruled a triple. Replays showed that the ball appeared to bounce and hit the gate above the wall. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez came out to argue the call and ended up getting ejected.
The Mets added another run in the frame on an RBI double from Buck.
"Whenever there's runs scored and you're out there pitching it probably settles your nerves a little bit," Wheeler said. "You try to go out there and put up a shutdown inning after you score runs."
The Braves went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts with runners in scoring position against Wheeler, who said he takes pride in pitching those "shutdown innings," which he's done successfully even though teams have threatened.
Hitters are batting .114 with runners in scoring position against Wheeler, and .077 with two outs.
"You could tell he's still maturing and growing. He's got some things to work on obviously with the offspeed pitches and getting ahead of hitters and getting that pitch count down," Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. "But you can see the stuff is there."
Perhaps most encouraging for the Mets was that Wheeler was able to go deep into the game after that long first inning, when the Braves scored on a throwing error by Buck.
While it's a small sample size, going deep into counts has been an ongoing issue for Wheeler since he made his Major League debut on June 18. He entered Thursday's game averaging 18.6 pitches per inning, fourth most in the big leagues among qualified pitchers. And this was only the third time in his seven starts Wheeler has lasted at least six innings.
"When he pounds the strike zone, he gets outs. He's got great movement on his fastball. But he's got to work so hard," Collins said. "A lot of deep counts, and the more Major League hitters see pitches, the more dangerous they become."
Which is partly why Atlanta had four hits and four runs. Wheeler didn't make many mistakes, but the ones he did make deep in counts were costly.
As he progresses, Wheeler's learning how to limit those mistakes. Right now it's a process, but he's certainly headed in the right direction.
"I'm starting to gain a little more confidence," Wheeler said. "I just have to trust my stuff and go after guys."
Chris Iseman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.