ATLANTA -- Before Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Phillies manager Rob Thomson shared that his plan for handling the bullpen would be a bit different compared to the tactics he deployed in the series opener.
A myriad of factors dictated this tone: A surplus of bullpen innings in Game 1 on Saturday night and upcoming back-to-back contests once they return home to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday night and Thursday. But at the top of the list was the fact that ace Zack Wheeler was on the bump on Monday night at Truist Park.
“This is our horse, really,” Thomson said. “So I’d like to get some length out of him tonight.”
Wheeler obliged as much as he could, putting on an impressive showing soured by a crushing ending in the Phillies' 5-4 loss to the Braves, tying the NLDS at 1 as the series heads back to Philadelphia. Wheeler etched his name into the franchise’s postseason record book, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the best lineup in baseball. It was the second-longest postseason no-hit bid in Phils history, behind only Roy Halladay and his no-hitter in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS against the Reds.
“Every fifth day he goes out there, we’re confident in his ability to do what he does,” Bryce Harper said.
Wheeler put the Phillies at ease from the outset after they took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. He struck out Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley in order, all on four-seam fastballs. Wheeler followed up his perfect first frame with another masterful inning, shaking off a Trea Turner error on Matt Olson's grounder to strike out the next three batters again.
The 33-year-old suburban Atlanta native became the first pitcher in postseason history to strike out six batters with zero hits allowed within the first two innings. Wheeler’s weapon of choice was the four-seam fastball: Five of the six strikeouts were on the heater, with an average velocity of 97.2 mph on those five putout pitches. There was a special emphasis at attacking the top of the zone with that four-seamer, as well -- the average pitch height on those five strikeouts was 3.59 feet.
“[The plan] was good,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “I thought he threw the ball great. … It was probably one of the better four-seam fastballs he's had all year long. He was able to kind of ride on that. He got a lot of early weak flyouts with it. He was able to strike guys out late in the count.”
“Just getting ahead with the fastball,” Wheeler said. “See how it was flying, see how they were reacting to it type-deal.”
Wheeler finished with 10 strikeouts, marking the first double-digit strikeout game of his postseason career. He tied the Phillies’ postseason record for strikeouts in a single game, becoming the first pitcher since Cliff Lee in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series against the Yankees to reach that mark.
Both Wheeler and Realmuto thought the righty’s stuff and their game plan was solid for most of the night. Wheeler produced 15 swings and misses (seven on fastballs, four each on sweepers and curveballs), his spin rate was up on his offspeed pitches, while the horizontal and vertical break on his sweeper was up from his yearly averages.
“It was really good all day,” Realmuto said of Wheeler’s sweeper. “He just hung one of them. Other than that, they didn't take good swings at it. It didn't look like they were seeing it well.”
But the exception Realmuto alluded to is part of the reason there wasn’t vigorous celebration of Wheeler’s historic and dominant outing in the Phillies’ clubhouse. After his no-hit bid ended on Albies' run-scoring single in the sixth, his night came to a close on a loud two-run homer from Travis d’Arnaud in the seventh that cut the Phils’ lead to 4-3.
Wheeler wanted the seventh inning and Thomson said that there was no discussion about taking him out, noting that the right-hander's stuff was still good at the end of his outing.
Wheeler stands alone in Phillies history as the only pitcher with multiple no-hit bids of four or more innings in the postseason. He remains the only pitcher to strike out at least 10 Braves hitters in 2023 -- and he’s now done it twice, having whiffed 12 on May 27 at Atlanta.
If the series extends to a Game 5 in Atlanta on Saturday night, Wheeler will get the chance to change the ending.
“It’s frustrating,” Wheeler said. “I kind of let them get momentum going. That’s my fault. I let them back in the game.”