PHOENIX — It’s getting difficult to find new ways to describe Zack Wheeler’s dominance in the postseason, but what he did for the Phillies on Saturday night in Game 5 of the NLCS was perhaps the most important thing he’s done to this point in his career.
The Phillies used their bullpen on a 26-run lead in Games 3 and 4, both losses in Arizona. Had Wheeler gone five innings in Game 5, and had he lacked leadership, the Phillies would have been in harm’s way, likely coming home needing to win two in a row to avoid elimination.
Craig Kimbrel went down after throwing 45 pitches the last two nights. So was Orion Kerkering after showing back-to-back nights for the first time in his life. Jose Alvarado was available, but the Phillies desperately wanted to get away from him because it would have been the third day in a row and the debut would have covered two innings.
Wheeler didn’t go five innings. He did not lack leadership. He went seven and didn’t give up a run until his final frame. He hit eight. One walked. He entered having allowed the fewest baserunners per inning of any pitcher in MLB playoff history and that hasn’t changed.
Wheeler made 10 playoff appearances. His opponents have hit .164/.211/.256. That’s 232 plate appearances Wheeler has turned some of the best hitters in baseball into the equivalent of a pitcher.
The Phillies needed him more than ever on Saturday night and he answered the call again with a 6-1 win that put them up 3-2 in the NLCS.
“You could tell there was a lot of weight on his shoulders today, but every time it happens, he seems to step up to us and play well,” catcher JT Realmuto said.
“You could see it from the first pitch, he was trying to attack the strike zone. He was focused all day in the pregame routine, in the pitchers’ meeting, and he was shutting down. A lot of times, the wheels were off in the pitchers’ meetings. It’s like, ‘Do Listening to us now?
“He was more interested in how do we attack this guy, how do we get this guy out the second time. He was engaged.”
The only pitcher ever to have an ERA, WHIP, and strikeout rate that matches Wheeler in as many innings is Bob Gibson. seriously.
The Phillies wouldn’t be here without him. They couldn’t have been in the 2022 World Series without him. Wheeler out-produced Gerrit Cole, who signed for nearly three times the money in the same season. This year’s Cy Young winners could be Cole and either Spencer Strider or Zac Gallen. When you take into account not only Wheeler’s production but his timing, he may be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball right now.
“I told him after the game, I was like, ‘You’re one of the best pitchers I’ve ever played with,'” Bryce Harper said. “I’ve played with a lot of good players and he’s easily in the top three.
“He has every confidence that he can throw any pitch of any number. He’s not afraid. As a baseball player watching that, you’re watching an amazing moment every time he goes out there.”
“That’s why he’s here. That’s why he gets the opportunity to do it every five days. I love seeing him do it. What he does is unbelievable.”
The NLCS now returns to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Monday night and Game 7 (if necessary) on Tuesday. Aaron Nola will start Game 6. Guard Suarez will start Game 7. Suarez spent Saturday night in the bullpen and could have been used if the game was closer or Wheeler had a shorter night.
Add that to the list of reasons why Wheeler’s debut was so pivotal. It’s at least one run down Suarez’s arm and one less look for the Diamondbacks at what pitcher they might see again.
“With the state our bullpen was and what they went through the last couple days, Wheels took it upon himself to dig deeper into the game,” Realmuto said.
“It was big to get some momentum back from those guys. We saw how they responded after we beat them in two games at home, they came back and punched us right in the mouth. It’s exciting to be back home, but we’ve got to put on our business hats. “They will come to play, so I hope the fans can support us and lift us up even more.”
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