Wheeler dominant before early hook adds to Phils' what-ifs

November 6th, 2022

HOUSTON -- In order for the Phillies to save their season at Minute Maid Park on Saturday night, they needed their ace, Zack Wheeler, at his very best in the biggest start of his life. It’s just that nobody -- perhaps not even Wheeler himself -- seemed to know what to expect after the right-hander showed significantly diminished velocity in Game 2 while dealing with self-professed arm fatigue.

The Phillies made the call to give Wheeler two extra days’ rest, and from his first pitch -- a 98.4 mph heater that began putting the worries to rest -- to his last, Wheeler rose to the occasion, dominating the Astros for five scoreless innings as his best stuff maintained deep into the Houston night.

But after being pulled early at 70 pitches amid a controversial sequence of events in the sixth inning, Wheeler watched from the dugout as Yordan Alvarez’s decisive home run off José Alvarado carried the Astros to a 4-1 win in Game 6 and a World Series championship. Wheeler had the stuff to extend the Phillies’ season. It wasn’t enough.

"He had lightning bolts coming out of his hands today,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “His fastball was really good. Probably the best I've seen it this season, as far as being able to command both sides of the plate with it. Two-seam, four-seam, up, down -- he really had it going today.”

Those lightning bolts zipped by helpless Astros hitters at an average of 98.6 mph in a blinding seven-pitch first inning, shoving away the questions raised by Game 2, when he averaged 96.2 mph in the first and 95.2 mph overall as he allowed five runs (four earned) in five innings. In the fifth inning, his fastballs were still sitting comfortably in the 97 mph range. He’d topped out at 96.9 mph in Game 2.

After rain delayed Game 3 and all subsequent contests by a day, the Phillies could have started Wheeler on regular rest in Game 5, as the Astros did with Justin Verlander. They didn’t -- and it clearly proved the right move as Wheeler emptied the tank, exactly how the Phillies envisioned when they signed him to a five-year, $118 million contract before the 2020 season.

“Body, arm, everything -- command was there tonight,” Wheeler said. “I felt good.”

“Yeah, he was outstanding,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “I mean, the fastball was 98. It started to tick down a little bit at the end, but not alarming. Curveball, slider were good. The two-seam, I don't know how many bats he broke. But he was really, really good.”

In the first five innings, only one runner reached second base as Wheeler struck out five and allowed two singles and a walk, cruising into the sixth having only thrown 62 pitches, with seemingly plenty more in the tank, and with a 1-0 lead after Kyle Schwarber’s blast in the top of the frame.

But Philadelphia’s downfall began when No. 9 hitter Martín Maldonado led off that sixth by clearly making an effort to get hit by a pitch, the Phillies thought, as he moved noticeably closer to the plate, as compared to his first plate appearance. They challenged the call when a pitch ran inside and Maldonado dropped his elbow into it -- but to no avail.

“I think everybody saw it,” Wheeler said. “I guess that’s what easy outs do -- try to get hit and get on base.”

“For me, it was so obvious that's what he was trying to do that at-bat,” Realmuto said. “He scooted up, probably six inches closer to the plate.”

Two batters later, eventual World Series MVP Jeremy Peña hit a ground-ball single up the middle that carried an expected batting average of .350, putting runners on the corners, and before Wheeler could even process what was happening, Thomson emerged to yank him in favor of Alvarado after only 70 pitches -- far sooner than many expected.

Had Maldonado not been hit, Thomson said, Wheeler would likely have stayed in the game to face Alvarez, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what would have happened, and how this performance might have been immortalized in Phillies lore. But in this timeline, four pitches later, Alvarez planted one on top of the batter’s eye, cashing in two runners and undoing Wheeler’s control of the narrative -- though he did everything he could.

“I would have [liked to stay in],” Wheeler said. “It’s win or go home right there. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s ultimately [Thomson’s] call, and that’s the call he made.”