Wheeler's excellent start squandered after one huge miscue

July 23rd, 2023

CLEVELAND -- It was a pop fly. You know the type. Harmless. Genial. Cordial. The kind of ball in play you could introduce to your grandmother.

Who knew, for the Phillies on Saturday night at Progressive Field, that this pop fly off the bat of José Ramírez would prove so sinister?

Maybe, on some level, knew. Statistically, the Phillies’ co-ace has been the victim of some of the worst supporting defense in MLB this season, and that was no different in this 1-0 loss to the Guardians.

A night after an incomplete comeback attempt in a frustrating series opener, the Phillies lost their fourth straight and officially dropped back-to-back series for the first time since the first week of May -- all because of a pop fly that dropped in, thwarting a magnificent start in a tough-luck season for Phils co-ace Wheeler.

“You’ve got to win those games,” manager Rob Thomson said. “Those are like playoff games. You’ve got to win. We can't can't break down fundamentally.”

In one painful moment, they did. Three fielders didn’t get to a ball that hung in the air for what was surely seconds but felt like hours.

Second baseman Bryson Stott, center fielder Brandon Marsh and right fielder Nick Castellanos were all rendered powerless by the pop fly that should have been the third out of the bottom of the sixth.

Instead, it somehow fell between all of their bodies, allowing Amed Rosario, who had singled with two out, to motor home from first with what ended up being the game’s only run.

It was, ultimately, the outfielders’ ball. It was their job to call off Stott and make the play. Neither Castellanos nor Marsh did.

“Running in, I saw Stott in the area where the ball was, and I assumed he was under it,” Castellanos said. “It’s our responsibility to take charge and not assume the infielder is going to make the play.”

The Phillies’ bats didn’t exactly take charge, either. They were completely fruitless against Guardians rookie starter Tanner Bibee, and that, of course, played a large role in this loss. But in one of the more interesting pitchers’ duels of the Phils’ season -- and at a time of year in which the playoff pressure is ratcheting up -- one misplay meant everything.

For Wheeler, it was a season trendline encapsulated in extreme fashion. He entered this start with the Phillies having collectively posted a minus-8 Outs Above Average mark behind him. That was tied for the worst such mark for any starter in MLB this season.  

The stat line will tell you Wheeler gave up an earned run in this outing. It’s a liar, because Wheeler was terrific in seven innings in which he allowed just five hits (yes, including the painful pop fly), one walk (his first in 24 innings this month… on a borderline two-strike pitch to Myles Straw in the seventh) and eight strikeouts.

Wheeler had said earlier this month that he needs to “step it up” in the second half, and, after making a slight mechanical tweak to his leg kick, he certainly did that on this night.

“I don’t think I had my dominant stuff,” he said. “But I had good stuff. I was able to keep them off balance, throw a lot of strikes, get into my counts and not theirs.”

Wheeler’s season stats will tell you he has a 3.88 ERA, more than a full run higher than his 2022 mark (2.82). That’s misleading, too. Wheeler’s Fielding Independent Pitching mark, which is more reflective of outcomes he can control (walks, homers and strikeouts) is exactly a full run lower than his ERA, at 2.88.

In other words, he needs more help from his defense. Help he didn’t get on what, weirdly, turned out to be the play of the game.

The irony is that Kyle Schwarber, a DH miscast as a left fielder who finally gets to DH more now that Bryce Harper will be playing a fair amount of first base, made a heck of a diving play on a Ramírez fly ball in the fourth.

But two innings later, three guys with gloves could not do what Schwarber had done … or, for that matter, what Harper had done when he leapt into a camera well to haul in a much more difficult pop fly in his first game as a first baseman Friday night.

“Somebody should have been there,” Thomson said. “We’ve got to catch that baseball.”