Wheeler delivers gem in 'make or break' spot

June 27th, 2021

NEW YORK -- certainly grasped the importance of Sunday’s start at Citi Field.

He could stop the bleeding and help the Phillies salvage a split in a four-game series they should have swept, if not for a pair of costly errors and blown saves in the final innings on Friday and Saturday. But Wheeler answered the bell. He pitched seven scoreless innings in a 4-2 victory over the Mets to improve to 6-4 with a 2.20 ERA.

He is a lock to make his first National League All-Star team.

He is a legitimate candidate for the NL Cy Young Award, too.

“It was a tough day to hit, I'll just say that,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said. “Zack Wheeler was just nasty today, spotting his fastball from 96-99 at the bottom. He was pitching on both ends of the plate, too. And he had Jacob deGrom's slider for me, today. It was just late, disappearing to lefties and righties. It was the one version of Wheeler that's just tough to face.”

deGrom remains a heavy favorite to win his third Cy Young Award, of course. He is having an historic season. deGrom entered Sunday with a 4.4 WAR, which is the best mark among all pitchers, according to FanGraphs. Wheeler ranked second at 3.5.

But then according to Baseball Reference, Kevin Gausman (4.2), Wheeler (4.1) and Brandon Woodruff (4.1) each rank ahead of deGrom (4.0) in WAR in the NL.

“To me, there's no question that he's an All-Star pitcher this year,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “There's no question for me. I mean, I don't know how you can pitch much better. I know there are some people with lower ERAs, but I don't know how you can pitch much better than him. You know, deGrom being one of them. You look at the innings that [Wheeler has] logged and how deep he's gotten in games for us and he saves our bullpen. I mean, he's been one of the best pitchers in the game.”

Wheeler struck out eight Mets. He allowed four hits and two walks. He worked out of a jam in the first inning when he had runners on first and third with one out. He worked out of another jam in the fifth when he had runners on first and second with no outs.

He even dropped down a bunt that set up the Phillies’ first run in the second inning.

“His hustle just on the bunt made a difference in that game because he gets to first because he hustled,” Girardi said. “Zack was really, really good again.”

Phillies starters posted a 0.39 ERA (one earned run in 23 1/3 innings) this weekend against the Mets. They struck out 26 and walked five.

Aaron Nola tied Tom Seaver’s 51-year-old strikeout record in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader, when he struck out 10 consecutive batters. The Phillies carried a one-run lead into the seventh, but an error led to a blown save and a 2-1 loss in eight innings. They survived a similar collapse in Game 2, when Matt Moore pitched five scoreless innings in his first start for the team since May. They won in eight, 2-1.

A costly error in the ninth on Saturday led to another blown save in a 4-3 loss.

“Being where we are in the standings right now, we’ve got to win the ballgame,” Andrew McCutchen said. “This could make or break the season.”

“We could have had four,” Girardi lamented. “We got two, but we could have had four. That's kind of how I leave. But we got to move on and we got to finish strong going into the break. We got a one-day trip [to Cincinnati] here. We got six games at home and then we got seven on the road against some pretty good teams. We got to finish strong.”

If Wheeler remains on schedule, he will pitch two more times before the All-Star break. Then, the All-Star Game in Colorado. He will learn Sunday if he makes the team.

He will.