'Big-Game Wheels' having a postseason to remember

Wheeler adds to impressive 2022 playoffs numbers with six-plus innings in Game 5

October 28th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- When Zack Wheeler felt some discomfort in his right forearm in mid-August, he didn't want to go on the injured list, let alone miss a full month of the stretch run.

After all, the Phillies were in the midst of a tight National League Wild Card race, and Wheeler wanted to be doing his part to help the club reach its ultimate goal.

But he understood the decision.

"Just the right time to do it," Wheeler said at the time. "I'd rather be strong for the remainder of the season than try to gut it out right now and maybe not have my best stuff. So I think it's the smart thing to do right now."

The move has paid off better than even Wheeler and the Phillies could have anticipated. Not only has Wheeler had his best stuff in October, he's had some of the best stuff of any pitcher in postseason history.

Wheeler held the Padres to two runs on three hits over six-plus innings in Philadelphia's NL Championship Series-clinching 4-3 win in Game 5 on Sunday at Citizens Bank Park. He struck out eight batters and walked none.

It came on the heels of tossing seven scoreless innings with only one hit allowed in a Game 1 victory on Tuesday. In four starts this postseason, Wheeler has a 1.78 ERA and has held opponents to a .118 average. He's allowed 10 hits and three walks over 25 1/3 innings.

"I’m not going to call him Zack anymore," first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. "I’m going to call him 'Big-Game Wheels,' because this guy knows how to show up."

So just how dominant has Wheeler been?

His 0.51 WHIP is the lowest in any four-start span in a single postseason in MLB history -- and it's not even close. The next-lowest mark belongs to Curt Schilling, who had a 0.62 WHIP over a four-start span during the D-backs' 2001 title run.

“This is the best I’ve seen him," said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. "From start to start, he’s had his ace stuff every single time we’ve handed him the ball. I think the pressure and being on the biggest stage is just something he’s thrived on. He’s been great for us.”

As great as Wheeler was on Sunday, manager Rob Thomson wasn't taking any chances after Wheeler gave up a leadoff single to Jake Cronenworth in the seventh inning. Though it was only the third hit allowed by Wheeler -- and it came on just his 87th pitch of the game -- Thomson went to Seranthony Domínguez with the Phils clinging to a one-run lead.

Wheeler, who threw his four fastest pitches of 2022 in the first inning, had seen his average fastball velocity drop from 98.8 mph in the first to 95.8 mph in the sixth. His lone fastball in the seventh registered at 94.0 mph. Cronenworth's hit came on a hanging slider over the middle of the plate.

"I was running out [of gas] a little bit," Wheeler admitted after the game.

Domínguez promptly allowed a game-tying RBI double to Josh Bell, then brought in the go-ahead run on his third wild pitch of the inning, as a driving rain made it difficult to grip the ball.

Still, Thomson stuck by his decision.

"It was the right move in my mind," Thomson said. "We were trying to stretch Wheels as much as we could, get as many outs as we could, so that Seranthony and [José] Alvarado didn't have to take down as many outs."

Though it may not have gone exactly to plan on Sunday, things continue to fall into place perfectly for Wheeler, whose next start figures to come in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday night in Houston.

This was the vision for Wheeler during his month-long stint on the IL. And with a 1.34 ERA in seven starts since his return on Sept. 21, Wheeler has played as big of a role as anyone in leading the Phillies to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2009.

How’s he feeling now?

“Feeling decent,” Wheeler said. “It’s the end of the season, so everybody’s banged up a little bit -- but it all kind of goes away when you’re having fun like this.”