Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler took some comfort Friday night at Truist Park, knowing that he will make 30 more starts this season.
He expects most of them to be better than this one.
“I was just a little off today,” he said following an 8-1 loss to the Braves. “It’s just one of those days. It’s a tough loss. We were on a little hot streak, so hopefully we can come back tomorrow and start a new one.”
The Phillies swept the Braves last weekend in a season-opening series at Citizens Bank Park, igniting some excitement in a city starved for October baseball. Wheeler played a big part in it. He struck out 10 and allowed one hit in seven scoreless innings in Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Atlanta. He threw 90 pitches (62 strikes). He got 16 swings and misses, including eight on his fastball and two on his sinker. His fastball touched 99.8 mph. His sinker touched 98.5 mph. He even had a pair of two-out hits to score two runs.
He was masterful.
Things were different Friday. He found himself behind in the count too much. He allowed seven hits, three runs and four walks and struck out four in 4 2/3 innings. He threw 94 pitches (53 strikes), although home-plate umpire Carlos Torres called seven balls on pitches in the strike zone or on the corners.
“My command wasn’t the best,” Wheeler said about the tight strike zone. “I think the combination didn’t help me today, but at the end of the day it’s on me. I need to execute a little better and get ahead of guys. I didn’t get ahead of guys at all today. It’s very frustrating. It’s one of my big things that I always try to do is just get ahead of guys and I wasn’t able to do that.”
Wheeler allowed a towering two-run home run to Ronald Acuña Jr. in the fifth inning to hand the Braves a one-run lead.
His 1-1 slider caught too much of the plate.
“It wasn’t fooling anybody today,” Wheeler said. “The pitch to Acuña, I tried throwing it so it ended up on the corner. It just spun right down the middle and he did what he did.”
Acuña went 4-for-5 with two doubles, one home run, two RBIs and one game-saving catch in right field with runners at the corners and two outs in the sixth. Alec Bohm drove a ball to the warning track. If it fell, the Phillies would have scored two runs to tie the game. But Acuña ran it down.
“He’s a great player,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “When he centers a ball it’s loud. I mean, it’s really loud. We weren’t able to keep him from centering balls tonight. And that was a big difference in the game. We did a really good job with him in our place. We were not able to do that tonight.”
Acuña went 2-for-12 with five strikeouts in last weekend’s sweep in Philadelphia. He seemed to enjoy his bounce back against the Phillies. He certainly admired his 456-foot blast off Wheeler with a long look at home plate.
Asked if he minded the look, Wheeler shrugged his shoulders and said, “Whatever.”
Wheeler continued to grind in the fifth. He allowed another run to score when he fell behind 2-0 to Travis d’Arnaud. Girardi visited him on the mound, concerned about his pitch count and how hard he worked to that point. Girardi started his return to the dugout only to be told that pitching coach Caleb Cotham previously visited the mound.
Wheeler had to leave the game.
“I screwed up,” Girardi said.
“Honestly, I was so into the zone, so into the game right there, I didn’t recognize it either,” Wheeler said. “We said what we said out there, we broke and I didn’t even think twice about it. Those kinds of mistakes happen.”
These kinds of games happen. Wheeler struggled. Bohm committed a couple of errors. Charlie Morton kept the Phillies’ offense in check. For the Phillies, it was best to forget it and hope for a better performance Saturday from Zach Eflin.