As Wheeler rolls, Phils rocket past Padres in NLCS opener

October 19th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- Zack Wheeler is seizing the moment again.

The moments keep getting bigger and bigger, too. The biggest so far came Tuesday in a 2-0 victory over the Padres in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Petco Park. Wheeler allowed only one hit in seven scoreless innings to become the first Phillies pitcher to pitch seven-plus innings with one or fewer hits since Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in Game 1 of the 2010 NL Division Series against the Reds.

“Each start from the beginning of the playoffs is just topping one another, just the magnitude of it,” Wheeler said. “It’s kind of a blur, to be honest with you. I mean, I go out there, I’m excited, just try to stay who I am, not get too high, not get too low, just stay on the game plan. Just throw strikes, and hopefully that works.”

Stay who he is. Stay relaxed. Lock in, but maybe have a little fun, too.

“I played him in Golden Tee before his start,” Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “I was a little nervous.”

Game 1 is huge in a best-of-seven series. Teams that take a 1-0 lead in those series have won 119 of 185 times (64 percent) in baseball history. But Wheeler is not one of those starters who needs to put on headphones, listen to music and bury his head in his locker before he pitches. Wheeler talks to his teammates. He tries to stay loose. How else to explain that he sidled up to Schwarber in the visitors’ clubhouse and played Golden Tee?

“We had to stop after nine [holes] because we had to go out and take batting practice,” Schwarber said. “We said we're going to play tomorrow.”

Wheeler lost to Schwarber at Golden Tee. It was the only time he lost on Tuesday, although he threw 24 pitches in the first inning against the Padres, including a four-pitch walk to Juan Soto.

“I had to settle down the nerves a little bit,” Wheeler said. “I had the nerves going. As much as I try to stay calm out there, I'm human. But I was able to settle in, just try to stay on the game plan, throw first-pitch strikes, get ahead of guys and try to get quick outs.”

Wheeler threw eight pitches in the second inning, five in the third and 10 in the fourth. He allowed his first and only hit with one out in the fifth inning.

“After the first inning, we’re thinking it’s going to be a dogfight to get him through six," Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. "And then all of a sudden, he’s flying through innings [on] five, six, seven pitches."

“I was able to keep the crowd quiet as much as I could,” Wheeler said.

He got a boost from Bryce Harper’s towering home run to left field in the fourth inning to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead. He got a jolt when Schwarber obliterated a home run into the second deck in right field in the sixth to make it 2-0.

Schwarber’s homer left his bat at 119.7 mph and traveled a projected 488 feet.

“I'm always down the stairs, kind of out of the noise and all that, just so I can keep my head,” Wheeler said. “But I heard everybody sort of take off, so I ran up the stairs and I saw it land. That was pretty crazy.”

Wheeler’s four-seam fastball averaged 97.4 mph through six innings. It dropped to 95.7 mph in the seventh.

It was enough of a drop that the Phillies decided to go to the bullpen, despite Wheeler’s pitch count only being at 83.

“We were all comfortable with it,” said Wheeler, who has a 1.40 ERA in three postseason starts.

Seranthony Domínguez pitched a scoreless eighth. José Alvarado pitched out of a jam in the ninth. He walked Jurickson Profar, then a potential game-ending double play got botched when shortstop Bryson Stott could not catch third baseman Alec Bohm’s errant throw.

“When Bohmer fielded the ball, the umpire was moving towards the mound from his position, and Bohmer didn't actually see Stott coming,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He was actually throwing the ball to [second baseman Jean] Segura. He was the only guy you saw at the time. It just kind of got caught in the middle. I thought the ball could have been caught anyway, but didn't get an out. But that's what happens.”

Thomson walked to the mound.

“I just wanted to settle everybody down,” he said.

Alvarado got Manny Machado to fly out to right field. Josh Bell struck out swinging to end the game.

The Phillies, whose starters have a collective 1.17 ERA this postseason, left the ballpark on Tuesday night knowing they could put a stranglehold on the series on Wednesday afternoon. They have Aaron Nola on the mound.

And Schwarber and Wheeler have a rematch.