PHILADELPHIA -- The conditions at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday afternoon were far from ideal for baseball.
There were sustained winds hovering around 20 mph -- and gusts nearly twice as strong -- while a steady mist fell on and off throughout the ballgame. But that rain let up just long enough for the Phillies to squeeze in a 7-5 win over the Mets, setting up a possible clinch scenario in Sunday’s series finale.
But avoiding a postponement was pivotal not only for the sake of inching closer to securing a postseason spot, but also for what it means for Zack Wheeler's pitching schedule. By making his start as scheduled on Saturday, Wheeler will next pitch on regular rest on Thursday against the Pirates, lining him up to start Game 1 of a potential NL Wild Card Series -- also on normal rest.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s always good to get the games in,” manager Rob Thomson said. “But it does help us out a little bit. We could always move stuff around, but it definitely helps us out that we played today.”
Pushing back Wheeler's start even to Sunday would have left the Phillies with a difficult decision to make. Assuming they want to use Wheeler in Game 1, they would have needed to either skip this turn to keep him on schedule for Thursday and the subsequent postseason opener, use him on Sunday and then give him an extended layoff before Game 1, or start him on Sunday and Thursday before bringing him back on short rest for Game 1.
"Any time you can set things up to have your best guys going, that's always good," Harper said. "Especially in a three-game [series] against whoever it's going to be, any time you can have your No. 1 guy going, that's huge for us."
Obviously, any of those alternatives would have been less preferable -- especially when considering what Wheeler has done on normal rest this season.
Entering Saturday, Wheeler was 5-1 with a 1.86 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in nine starts on four days' rest this season. He was 7-5 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 21 starts coming off five or more days of rest.
“We’d like to just stay on schedule right now for the most part,” Wheeler said. “Just so we don’t have to jumble our rotation around a little bit or squeeze games in and all that type of stuff. So just one game at a time, and just win.”
While Wheeler was charged with five runs (three earned) over seven innings on Saturday, that line is a bit misleading. After giving up two unearned runs following a Trea Turner error in the second, Wheeler was tagged for three runs in the seventh, all of which came after Johan Rojas -- an elite center fielder -- misplayed a line drive that sailed over his head with the flags whipping behind him.
“I thought he pitched well,” Thomson said. “You look at that seventh inning there, where he gave up three runs, it was a couple of balls that weren’t hit very hard for base hits and then the misread by Rojas. … But that’s a very tough play.”
Regardless of rest, Wheeler is hitting his stride at the perfect time. He's pitched at least six innings in 13 of his past 14 starts -- and he's allowed three earned runs or fewer in 12 of those outings.
Wheeler has a 3.12 ERA since the All-Star break after putting up a 4.05 ERA in the first half.
“I feel good,” Wheeler said. “Personally, I feel good and feel healthy. I feel comfortable out there, so I’ve just got to keep that going.”
And keep in mind, at this time last year, Wheeler was in a race against the clock just to build back up for the postseason after a late-season IL stint due to right forearm tendinitis. Not to mention, the Phillies were in a battle just to lock up a postseason spot -- something they didn’t do until their final series of the regular season in Houston.
Things could line up much better this year -- both for Wheeler and the Phils.
“Last year was a little closer than we would have liked,” Wheeler said. “So just try to win as many games as we can and take care of what we need to and control what we can control.”