PHILADELPHIA -- Eric Hosmer caught Zack Wheeler’s eye as he trotted back to the Padres' dugout in the seventh inning Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.
He smiled at Wheeler.
Wheeler smiled back.
Hosmer took a healthy hack at Wheeler’s 0-2 fastball up in the zone. The crack of the bat filled the ballpark, leading everybody to believe it had a chance to fly into the right-field stands for a two-run home run. Instead, the ball fell harmlessly into Nick Castellanos’s glove on the warning track. It would be the closest San Diego came to touching Wheeler, who pitched seven scoreless innings in a 3-0 victory for Philadelphia.
“I thought it was gone,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know if he thought it was gone, too. I don’t know. I just thought it was a well-hit ball. But I turned around and Castellanos was running to it. I was like, oh, thank goodness.”
Wheeler allowed four hits and struck out a season-high nine in another encouraging performance from the Phillies’ ace. He is 2-0 with a 1.04 ERA in his last four starts. He has not allowed a run in three of those outings, allowing only three runs in 26 innings overall.
He has struck out 30 and walked six in the stretch.
“We’ve still got a little bit to work on,” Wheeler said. “It’s still just building up a little bit. It was good, but there’s still more to work on.”
Wheeler entered Spring Training behind schedule following shoulder soreness in December. He barely pitched competitively before camp ended, unless an intrasquad game against Phillies prospects is considered as competitive. But rather than keep Wheeler in Clearwater, Fla., to build up arm strength, they had him build up arm strength in the big leagues.
He had an 8.53 ERA (12 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings) in three starts through April 23.
He wasn’t himself at that point. His four-seam fastball averaged 95.2 mph, 1.9 mph lower than his 2021 average.
But Wheeler is looking more like himself this month. His four-seamer has averaged 96.2 mph in his last four starts, which included one eight-day break between appearances because of a stint on the COVID-19 injured list.
Wheeler’s fastball touched 97.8 mph on Wednesday. It touched 98.5 mph last week in Los Angeles.
“You just see, especially when it’s later in games, he just looks stronger,” said Rhys Hoskins, who homered in the third. “The stuff is still as crisp as it is in the first inning. I know he popped a 99 in L.A., so that’s always a good sign, more just a reminder for himself that when he really needs that it’s still in there. But I thought the way he punctuated his outing tonight in the seventh inning was something that we saw a lot last year.”
Wheeler’s importance cannot be overstated to the Phillies. As much as everybody talks about the lineup and the importance of hitters like Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto getting on track, or the recently shaky bullpen, or the health of Bryce Harper’s right elbow, the Phillies absolutely need Wheeler to be the ace of the rotation.
Aces win games like Wednesday, when the offense scores only three runs on five hits.
Wheeler said he did not enter his start with an extra sense of purpose following the Phillies’ shutout loss in Tuesday’s series opener.
“I don’t try to do that,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes it’s human. Sometimes you try to, but I know we’ve got a good team. I just go out there and try to do my thing and just pitch the best I can. And hopefully the results help that.”
But it meant everything for Wheeler to win it. The Phillies opened this six-game homestand hoping to continue the momentum they created on their 5-2 road trip last week against the Mariners and Dodgers. The Phillies now have a chance on Thursday to win their third consecutive series.
“That’s what guys are supposed to do, right?” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “Come back. You’ve got to bounce back. And to have Zack on the mound was great today.”
By the way, Hosmer’s ball left his bat at only 96.4 mph. It had an expected batting average of just .250.
It sounded like it was crushed, but it wasn’t crushed.
“Maybe it was the balls,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know.”
“I’ve seen a lot of those travel out of the yard,” Hoskins said. “The ball giveth and the ball taketh, I guess?”