Ace in the hole: Wheeler deals vs. Cards in Game 1
Right-hander tosses 6 1/3 scoreless innings in long-awaited postseason debut
ST. LOUIS -- Phillies ace Zack Wheeler had waited forever for this moment.
How would he handle it once he stepped on the mound Friday in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium? Would he keep his emotions in check? Would they get the best of him if something bad happened?
The results spoke for themselves in a 6-3 victory, putting the Phillies just one win away from advancing to the NL Division Series against Atlanta.
Wheeler pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings. He struck out four and allowed only two hits and one walk.
His 195 career regular-season starts were the third-most among active pitchers without a postseason appearance.
“I was able to keep them in check for the most part,” Wheeler said. “After that first inning, I settled in a little bit. Not get too high, not get too low and just stay on that line and try to get outs. It was fun. This is why we play, to get to the playoffs and try to win a World Series. It starts today.”
Wheeler allowed a leadoff single to Cardinals right fielder Lars Nootbaar in the first inning. Albert Pujols crushed a pitch at 108.3 mph, but Phillies center fielder Matt Vierling caught it. Wheeler struck out Paul Goldschmidt looking on a 98.6 mph fastball for the second out. He got Nolan Arenado to fly out to right on a 98.8 mph fastball.
They were the second- and third-hardest pitches Wheeler threw for outs this season.
“His stuff was explosive,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “Really from the start, I could tell in the bullpen when he was warming up, his body felt good, he was excited, he had the adrenaline, obviously. When he’s got his stuff going like that -- he’s able to throw the ball in the strike zone and pound the zone and get ahead of guys -- he’s really tough to hit.”
Arenado crushed a fly ball to center field in the fourth that Vierling ran down.
Wheeler thought it was gone.
“I was thankful the wind was blowing [in] a little bit today,” he said.
Arenado’s ball left his bat at 103.7 mph with a 27-degree launch angle. At Busch Stadium, 14 right-handed batters had pulled a ball with an exit velocity of at least 103 mph and a launch angle between 24-28 degrees this season. Of those 14, 13 were homers and the other was a double.
“Right when I hit it, ‘That’s a home run,’” Arenado said of his thoughts. “This ballpark is a tough place to hit. Albert hit his 108 [mph] and it was not even close. Mine was 103-whatever and it was not even close, whatsoever.”
But Wheeler continued to grind through innings. It was just his fourth start since returning from the 15-day injured list because of tendinitis in his right forearm. Wheeler became the fourth pitcher in Phillies history to throw at least six scoreless innings in a postseason Game 1, joining Roy Halladay (2010 NLDS -- no-hitter), Cole Hamels (2008 NLDS) and Steve Carlton (1983 NLCS).
“It was very impressive,” Realmuto said. “Almost expected though. He’s been nails for us. In the biggest moments of the year when we’ve needed him most, that’s the guy he’s been. It was great to have him out there and the way he pitched was the only reason we were even in that ballgame.”