PHILADELPHIA -- Zack Wheeler popped out of the Phillies' clubhouse late Tuesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park to watch batting practice and chat.
He perched on the top step of the dugout and leaned against the railing for at least a half hour before Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series against Miami. It is unusual for a starter to do this in the regular season, much less the postseason. Most prefer to relax or prepare in the clubhouse. But Wheeler finds clubhouses too cold. He gets bored too easily.
“What am I going to do? Sit here in my chair and listen to the same songs over and over?” Wheeler said after a dominant performance in a 4-1 victory. “I need to go talk to somebody. My wife would laugh at that.”
“She says I’m never quiet,” he said.
Everybody is finally starting to talk about Wheeler as one of baseball’s elite big-game pitchers. He allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings against Miami to put the Phillies in position to advance to the NL Division Series against Atlanta. In best-of-three Wild Card Series (which includes 2020 and '22), Game 1 winners have won 10 of 12 times. No road team has lost Game 1 and won a series.
Wheeler struck out eight Marlins. He walked none. He allowed five hits. Two were infield hits. Two more deflected off infielders’ gloves.
“There’s nobody else I’d rather have on the mound in those spots and those situations,” Bryce Harper said. “You can look at all the best pitchers in baseball: [Justin] Verlander, [Jacob] deGrom, [Max] Scherzer … anytime you have faith in your pitcher, it just gives you that much more of an edge. Zack is one of those guys.”
Wheeler has a 2.55 ERA in seven postseason starts. It is better than a host of Hall of Fame pitchers, including Jim Palmer (2.61), John Smoltz (2.67), Whitey Ford (2.71), Tom Seaver (2.77), Warren Spahn (3.05), Nolan Ryan (3.07), Steve Carlton (3.26), Greg Maddux (3.27), Pedro Martinez (3.46) and Jack Morris (3.80).
“I hope they appreciate it because I certainly do,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “I think everybody in this organization appreciates what he’s done because it’s been phenomenal. Tonight was no exception.”
“The story was Wheeler,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said.
Wheeler’s four-seam fastball averaged 98.0 mph in the first inning, up 2.2 mph from his regular-season average. He struck out Marlins designated hitter Jorge Soler looking on a 0-2 sweeper for the second out.
He was off.
The sweeper is a pitch that Wheeler started to throw in Spring Training, hoping to give hitters something else to consider as they tried to beat him. Wheeler never struck out more than three batters in a game with it until Tuesday, when he struck out five.
“That was the best the sweeper’s been,” Wheeler said.
Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto knew it right away.
“The first inning when he froze Soler on an 0-2,” he said. “That guy usually doesn't take 0-2 [sweepers] like that. I knew it was a good one that day. You could just tell by the movement and how late and sharp the bite was. It was going to be a big pitch for us.”
Wheeler allowed his only run in the seventh. He gave up a one-out double to Josh Bell, who scored following infield singles from Jake Burger and Bryan De La Cruz. Thomson removed Wheeler after he threw his 100th pitch.
Wheeler got a standing ovation.
It felt good. He got pulled in the sixth inning in Game 6 of the 2022 World Series, despite holding a 1-0 lead and having thrown only 70 pitches. He was throwing so well at the time that Realmuto said he had “lightning bolts coming out of his hands.” But the hook came, Yordan Alvarez hit a ball to the moon off José Alvarado and the Phillies’ season ended in Houston.
Alvarado replaced Wheeler again on Tuesday. But this time he struck out Yuli Gurriel to end the seventh inning.
Any déjà vu, Thomper?
“Not really,” Thomson said. “But I might be lying.”
Wheeler hopes to replace that painful Game 6 memory with a joyful one that has him hoisting the World Series championship trophy.
“This year we’re a new team,” Wheeler said “I don't know, just trying to do the same thing. Just go deep into the games, good quality innings, try to save the bullpen because I know it’s going to be a long road ahead of us. That's the biggest goal.”
To get there, Wheeler will keep doing what he’s doing because it works. So if the Phillies win this Wild Card Series, don’t be surprised to see Wheeler watching BP before his next start, which would be Monday in Game 2 of the NLDS in Atlanta.
He might even strike up a conversation with somebody, too.
“Everybody’s different,” he said.