PHILADELPHIA – The Phillies would have won Saturday, even if Zack Wheeler never picked up a bat.
He pitched that well.
But it was more fun to watch him hit and pitch. Wheeler had two hits and two RBIs as he allowed just one hit and struck out 10 in seven dominant innings in the Phillies' 4-0 victory over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Wheeler is the first Phillies pitcher to have two or more hits and RBIs in a game since Ben Lively on Sept. 5, 2017. He is just the fourth Phillies pitcher to hit those marks in the past 10 years.
“Easy game, right?” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “The guy took 18 months off of hitting and in his first game he gets a couple knocks.”
Wheeler hit a two-out single up the middle in the fifth inning to score Jean Segura and give the Phillies a 1-0 lead. He hit a two-out double down the left-field line in the sixth inning to score Alec Bohm to give the Phillies a four-run lead. Wheeler faced live pitching just twice since 2019: once in Spring Training 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled camp and once at the end of this spring.
In between, MLB employed a universal designated hitter in the American and National Leagues in '20.
But Wheeler can hit. He hit a combined .204 in 2018-19 with the Mets, which ranked fourth out of 28 pitchers with 100 or more plate appearances. Hoskins remembers Wheeler hitting his first and only home run against the Phillies in a 9-0 victory at Citi Field on April 23, 2019.
Wheeler pitched seven scoreless innings in that game, too.
“I’m just looking fastball,” Wheeler said. “Pitchers are going to see fastballs. I know it sounds simple and kind of dumb, but it’s the truth. You’re going to see a fastball, you’ve just got to be ready to hit it and more than likely it’s going to be away. You kind of just try to put the bat on the ball and hope for the best.”
The Braves had little hope to hit Wheeler. He had everything working: four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup and curveball.
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.
“It’s an easy cheese,” Hoskins said.
But not easy to hit.
“The ball is just explosive,” Braves right-hander Charlie Morton said. “He seems a lot like [Jacob] deGrom. He’s taller, longer and stays closed. He does a great job on his backside working down the hill. He hits the ground and he’s not in a rush to throw the ball. The ball comes out nice and easy at 97-100. It seemed like he had a pretty good feel for that cutter or slider he’s throwing, backdooring it to guys.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said it might have been the best he ever saw Wheeler throw.
It was the first time Wheeler struck out 10 with the Phillies. Last season, he tried to be more efficient with his pitches, trying to retire hitters earlier in counts, so he could pitch deeper into games. He said this spring that he tried for more strikeouts toward the end of last season, just to see if he could do it.
He could, striking out seven or more batters in three of his final four starts after striking out seven in just one of his first seven starts in '20.
Wheeler said he wasn’t trying for strikeouts on Saturday. It’s just how it happened.
It’s just how good his stuff was.
“The first inning or two I really wasn’t getting ahead of guys like I wanted to,” Wheeler said. “And then as the game went on I did a little better job at that. When you’ve got everything working – fastball, change, curve, slider – and you’re placing it where you want to, it makes it a lot easier.”
Aaron Nola pitched well on Opening Day on Thursday. Wheeler dominated on Saturday. Zach Eflin pitches on Sunday as the Phillies try to sweep Atlanta.
Maybe Eflin can be better than both of them.
“It’s a friendly competition, right?” Wheeler said. “You go out there and see a guy pitch very well and you try to go out there and beat it. And I hope Eflin goes out there and beats me. It’s what makes a starting staff great, when you try to go out and beat the person in front of you.”