Wheeler sunk by 9th-inning blast as Phils fall

August 26th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA -- For the second time in four games, Phillies manager Joe Girardi showed faith in his starter in the ninth inning.

For the second time, the Phillies lost.

Phillies ace Zack Wheeler allowed two earned runs through eight innings in Wednesday night’s 7-4 loss to the Rays at Citizens Bank Park. He struck out 10 -- including his 200th strikeout of the season -- and threw only 93 pitches.

Wheeler is a candidate to win the National League Cy Young Award. Depending on how one looks at the numbers, he might even be a slight favorite to win it. So after a brief conversation in the Phillies’ dugout, Girardi sent Wheeler to the mound to pitch the ninth in a tie game.

“I felt fine,” Wheeler said. “Obviously, I was a little tired, but I felt good enough to go back out there.”

But then disaster struck, just like in San Diego on Saturday, when Aaron Nola gave up a game-tying homer in the ninth in a 10-inning loss to the Padres. On Wednesday, Wheeler allowed a leadoff single off the top of the right-field wall to Yandy Díaz. Kevin Kiermaier then hit an 0-2 fastball just inside the third-base line for a double to put runners on second and third.

“I thought I could sneak it by him out there because we were pounding him in the whole game,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know. It was away, but it’s either got to be up or paint it down.”

Wheeler was in trouble. Girardi stuck with him.

“We’ve seen him give us nine innings, and a strong nine innings,” Girardi said. “I still liked his stuff, and his stuff is as good as anyone who we have. That’s a judgement on my call. It didn’t work, but I still liked his stuff.”

Wheeler made one final mistake: He threw an 0-2 fastball to Rays catcher Francisco Mejía, who crushed it into the second deck in right field for a three-run home run to give the Rays a three-run lead.

“I was trying to go up and away,” Wheeler said. “It was up. It wasn’t where I wanted it. Sometimes you have to give the guy credit. It stinks to do it, but you have to do it sometimes. I didn’t execute like I fully wanted to.”

"Obviously, the hit I got there turned out a better result than I anticipated,” Mejía said.

The loss dropped the Phillies (63-63) to .500 for the first time since Aug. 2 and five games behind the Braves in the National League East with just 36 games to play.

If the Phillies want to keep things interesting in September, they better start winning -- beginning Thursday against Arizona -- and they know it. Because if the Braves play just .500 the rest of the season, they will finish with 86 wins. The Phillies will need to play 23-13 (.639) the rest of the way just to tie them.

“Obviously, we’ve got to pick it up,” Wheeler said. “We had a good spell. We had a little bad spell. We’ve been talking about consistency the whole year. We just need to find that, especially down this last little stretch right here. It’s big, obviously. We know that. You guys know that. Everybody knows that. We just need to play some good baseball.”

The Phillies got eight strong innings from Wheeler on Wednesday. They got a game-tying, two-run home run from Bryce Harper in the fifth inning and a game-tying homer from Rhys Hoskins in the eighth. But they also allowed two unearned runs in the fourth because of a few defensive mistakes, which has been a problem for this team all season.

But the Phillies still liked their chances. They had their best pitcher on the mound in the ninth. They had Wheeler.

“It’s disappointing,” Wheeler said. “He trusted me and I didn’t do my job. Yeah, it stinks. It’s just one of those that you forget.”