'He's a true No. 1': Wheeler adds to stellar postseason resume in G1

Right-hander gets 15 consecutive outs, lowers playoff WHIP to MLB-best 0.70

October 17th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- Zack Wheeler looked nearly untouchable -- let alone hittable -- for the majority of his start in the Phillies' 5-3 win over the D-backs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise for a guy who’s starting to put together one of the better resumes in postseason history.

“He's a true No. 1,” said Kyle Schwarber, who staked Wheeler to an early lead with his fourth postseason leadoff homer. “And you're looking forward to handing him the ball.”

After allowing a leadoff broken-bat single to D-backs rookie sensation Corbin Carroll, Wheeler rattled off 15 consecutive outs, including eight via strikeout. The only blemish in his six-inning gem came on Geraldo Perdomo's two-run homer in the top of the sixth.

That was one of only three hits allowed by Wheeler, who did not walk a batter. Through three starts this postseason, Wheeler has 26 strikeouts to just one walk, while posting a 2.37 ERA over 19 innings.

Wheeler’s 26 strikeouts are the most in any three-game postseason span in Phillies history, surpassing the previous mark of 25, shared by Cole Hamels (2010-11) and Cliff Lee (‘09).

Going back to last postseason, Wheeler has a 2.63 ERA in nine postseason starts with the Phillies. He's allowed just 30 hits and eight walks over 54 2/3 innings during that stretch, giving him a 0.70 WHIP -- the best by any pitcher in MLB postseason history (minimum three starts).

With Monday’s performance, Wheeler also became just the third pitcher with at least three postseason starts of eight strikeouts and no walks, joining Lee (four) and David Price (three).

So what’s the key to Wheeler’s postseason success?

“I don’t know,” Wheeler said. “I really don’t have an answer, to be honest with you. Just trying to step up my game.”

While Wheeler may not want to dwell on his own success, others were more than happy to offer some answers.

“You can't say enough about the way that he takes the ball and the way that he composes himself,” Schwarber said. “It's a rowdy crowd. … But he is out there, and he is in control of the game. He's in control of the situation.”

Added catcher J.T. Realmuto, “That adrenaline that he gets, I think it makes him hyper-focused. You can see it in his eyes in the bullpen, you can see it throughout the entire game. He’s so focused on doing his job and being the best he can that it just brings out the best version of him.”

Manager Rob Thomson summed it up simplest.

“It's command. It's stuff. It's power. It's competitive nature,” Thomson said. “It's everything.”

Despite being “hyper-focused,” Wheeler still finds time to enjoy his surroundings. He noted the ovation during his walk to the bullpen before the game. He even appeared to wave to Tim McGraw as the country music star pointed to the mound while riding off the field on the back of the Phillie Phanatic’s ATV following a skit between innings.

"That’s what I’ve learned over my career: You always pay attention and enjoy these types of moments,” Wheeler said. “They’re not going to last forever, so you’ve got to enjoy them while they last. Just soak it in.”

Wheeler's outing started with Carroll flaring a single into shallow right-center field off a 96.5 mph fastball on the inside corner. The ball shattered Carroll's bat and had an exit velocity of just 69.8 mph.

Carroll never advanced beyond first base, as Wheeler responded by striking out Ketel Marte and Tommy Pham before getting Christian Walker to ground out to shortstop. In fact, no other D-backs hitter reached first base until Evan Longoria ripped a leadoff single to left in the sixth to set up Perdomo's two-run shot to right on an elevated 94.2 mph fastball.

From there, Wheeler had it all working.

He forced 17 swings and misses, including 10 with his four-seam fastball. He used the four-seamer to finish off half of his eight strikeouts. 

“He just beat us with his best pitch,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. “He just had it going today.”

The pitch was working so well for Wheeler that he threw it for 45 of his 81 pitches. That 56% four-seamer usage was his second highest in any outing this season.

“Fastball was good,” Wheeler said. “Good life, could command it basically how I wanted to.”

And therein lies the key: When Wheeler is spotting his four-seamer with precision, he becomes almost unhittable.

Just ask Schwarber, who went 1-for-10 with a single and three K’s vs. Wheeler before the two became teammates last season.

“He's obviously got electric stuff, but when he is commanding the baseball, it's pretty nasty,” Schwarber said. “I'm happy to be on his team, because I did not like facing that guy. Can't talk enough about the poise, the stuff, everything -- it's all A-plus.”

For Wheeler, it’s a dream come true.

“It’s really cool,” Wheeler said. “Your goal as a little kid is to pitch in the playoffs and pitch in big games in front of crowds like this. It’s special.”