'Pen can't nail it down in Wheeler's return

September 17th, 2020

PHILADELPHIA -- If only the Phillies’ bullpen held the way 's nail did on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park.

Wheeler walked off the mound with one out in the eighth inning and a one-run lead before the bullpen blew its 10th save in a 5-4 loss to the Mets. Wheeler pitched well, possibly better than anybody could have anticipated. He nearly lost the nail on his right middle finger in a freak mishap getting dressed late last week in Miami. It forced the Phils to push his start from Saturday to Monday, then from Monday to Wednesday, because they were concerned that if the nail ripped completely from the bed, it could end his season.

If the Phillies lost Wheeler, it could end their season, too. He has been that good for Philadelphia, and his importance only increased with recent injuries to fellow starters Jake Arrieta and Spencer Howard, as well as to Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto in the lineup.

“You can’t imagine the pain that he was in,” manager Joe Girardi said.

Wheeler allowed seven hits and three runs and struck out two over a season-high 7 1/3 innings. He showed early that he felt OK when he ripped a 99 mph fastball past a swinging J.D. Davis for the second out of the first inning.

Wheeler had a fake nail and a nail hardener over the cracked one to protect it. It seemed to do the trick. He said he felt fine throwing most of his pitches, except his changeup. He threw a splitter as an alternative.

“I still throw the split in my bullpens, just so I can keep that in my back pocket,” Wheeler said. “This is why I do that, so I can always just have it. Just the pressure of the changeup bothered me a little too much, so I just moved onto the split and it was a really good pitch for me today. Command was there for the most part.”

That Wheeler pitched as well as he did should come as a huge relief for the Phillies. They have 12 games remaining in the regular season and now they can feel comfortable with their plan to have Aaron Nola pitch three of them and Wheeler pitch two.

“I think everyone had a pretty big question mark tonight on whether Zack was going to be able to do what he did,” catcher Andrew Knapp said. “I think it’s definitely a relief. Obviously, we’ve got our backs up against the wall with the injuries and whatnot, but for him to do that tonight, [it] gives us confidence moving forward that this finger thing is behind us. He’s one of our horses. We’re going to have to ride him all the way through.”

Good starting pitching can overcome many things, except maybe a consistently poor bullpen. Philadelphia left-hander Adam Morgan allowed the game-tying run in the eighth and Héctor Neris allowed the game-winning run in the ninth. He dropped the ball on the mound for a balk, which moved the potential go-ahead run to second to set up Andrés Giménez's decisive RBI single.

The Phillies' bullpen has a 7.05 ERA, which is the highest in Major League Baseball and the second highest (behind the 1930 Phils' 8.15 ERA) for any bullpen in big league history.

The latest blown save dropped the Phils to 24-24 and 1 1/2 games behind the Marlins for second place in the National League East. Philadelphia remains the No. 7 seed in the eight-team postseason field, but the Giants (also 24-24) and Cardinals (22-23) are closing in.

So then why pull Wheeler after 95 pitches in the eighth? Girardi said because Wheeler allowed two hits to Brandon Nimmo, one to Michael Conforto and the two big hits to Davis, including a home run. But things have gotten so bad that Girardi was asked why he goes to his bullpen at all when Nola and Wheeler are on the mound.

Well, in part because if Nola and Wheeler blow out from being overused, nothing matters.

“At this point, we can’t feel bad for ourselves,” Knapp said. “We’ve got to go out and perform. The way this season has been, it’s kind of been like that the whole way. We’ve got to show up tonight, and if you don’t show up tonight, you’ve got to show up tomorrow. We’re not going to take these performances into the next day. You’ve got to flush it and make sure you’re ready to go tomorrow. I know we’re confident in what we have out there. We’re definitely still in this thing. If we worry about all the bad stuff that’s happening, we could screw this thing up and not be ready for the opportunity we have.”