Zack Wheeler Gives The Phillies His Best When They Needed It Most
Though the Phillies did not lose anything they couldn’t make up for in their first two National League Championship Series contests at Chase Field, there was a certain element of nervousness to have for what was ahead after Philadelphia’s 6-5 defeat in Game 4. Manager Rob Thomson had gone all-in on his bullpen on a couple of occasions last postseason, and it always worked. The Phillies did not have to worry about the doomsday hypotheticals that could have become reality if they lost the games where Thomson was most aggressive.
That reality starred them straight in the face after all eight of the Phillies’ traditional relievers pitched on Friday. Many of their high-leverage arms also pitched Thursday. It may have seemed reckless, but it was an extension of the style that has made the Phillies one of the sport’s most feared teams over the last two postseasons.
“From the start of the playoffs, that was sort of the message to everybody was let’s put pressure on people,” said Thomson.
It was on display early in Game 5, as the Phillies attempted an audacious double steal that succeeded because Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Ketel Marte could not make a clean throw to home plate. Thomson’s aggressiveness, however, is always calculated. The Phillies had practiced this play before. Thomson said it was called because there were two outs and based on how Arizona’s defenders were positioned. All of that made sense. It was still risky, but it was a sound decision.
What Thomson didn’t say, nor did he to, was the subtext behind Philadelphia’s risk assessment in the opening inning Saturday and with their bullpen deployments the day before. The Phillies had Zack Wheeler, and their opponent did not.
“All his stuff was really good,” Thomson said. “Breaking ball, the slurve, curveball, the two-seam was fantastic. I thought he did a great job. He gave us exactly what we needed with where our ‘pen was at.”
That isn’t meant to diminish the aura of Zac Gallen, which the Phillies did themselves by tagging the Cy Young finalist for two more homers and four runs in six innings. The Phillies aren’t lacking for individual standouts. In the sixth, Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper launched solo blasts that traveled a combined distance of over 900 feet. Both are rapidly climbing the list of greatest postseason sluggers in both Phillies and Major League history. They play every day and bat about once an hour, so they are naturally in the limelight more than a starting pitcher.
But Wheeler has proven time and time again he is more than that as a Phillie. When he arrived from the New York Mets in Dec. 2019, that was more or less who Wheeler was. He had tantalizing stuff and velocity but could never put it all together. There was potential for more.
This, though, is something else. There were no secrets Saturday — the Phillies needed at least six high-quality innings from Wheeler to stand a chance. “As a pitcher, it’s kind of on you. A lot of it,” Wheeler said. The load fueled him.
His fastball danced. His offspeed pitchers fluttered with precision. The Diamondbacks did not manage an extra-base hit through 5.1 innings. By that point, Wheeler already had a four-run cushion at his back. The Phillies could truly taste the elusive third win in this NLCS, the one that will have champagne on ice in the home clubhouse Monday night and the victory playlist qued up.
It wasn’t quite as perfect of a start to the night for Wheeler as it was in Game 1. Two of Arizona’s first three hitters reached. Twice the Diamondbacks moved a runner to third with less than two outs. If anything, though, that may amplify the degree of Wheeler’s dominance. He got strikeouts for the second out in both of those innings. Wheeler generated 18 swings and misses twice as many as Gallen, and eight strikeouts to his counterpart’s one. Combined with some strong defensive plays from Bryson Stott and Johan Rojas behind him, the Phillies had a near-unbeatable formula for the night they needed it most.
“Winning a game here is huge. It really is,” Thomson said. “And especially how we lost the first two here. And it just shows the toughness of our club, the resiliency of our club.”
What happens in the rest of this series is out of Wheeler’s hands. His performance saved José Alvarado and Ranger Suárez from using bullets in a sub-optimal situation. He has done everything in his power to take the ball again in 2023. It will show in the extra energy boost at Citizens Bank Park Monday night with a second-straight National League pennant finally back within reach.
“We can’t think ahead too much,” Wheeler said. “It’s really hard to do, making it to the World Series… I think we got a better team than last year.”
Part of that is the new additions to the 2023 version of the Phillies. Another is having been through the highs and lows of this journey before. Wheeler’s lone poor career postseason appearance was Game 2 of last year’s Fall Classic, and he shouldered the loss in Game 6 when two runners he left scored on Yordan Álvarez‘s title-winning blast off Alvarado.
Before that, Wheeler was every bit as dominant as he has been this October. It matters a little bit extra to the 33-year-old because of the winding road he took to reach the postseason. He was not part of the New York Mets’ 2015 World Series run due to injury. The Mets wouldn’t let him be in the dugout to experience it. When the Phillies ended their decade in baseball’s doldrums a year ago, only two other active pitchers had made more starts without a postseason appearance than Wheeler.
Now, it is hard to imagine this stage without him. Wheeler may not embody Philadelphia with the boisterous personality of Schwarber or Harper. But it’s easy to argue he is more essential to the Phillies operation than anyone. His dominance allowed the Phillies to shoot their best shot in Game 4. More importantly, it led to a series-shifting Game 5 victory that has them back on the cusp of baseball’s brightest lights.