'He's as electric as it gets': Wheeler levels up fastball in bounce-back gem

May 18th, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- had no answers last Sunday after turning in his worst start of the season against the Marlins in Miami.

Fast forward to Friday night, and the Nationals had no answer for Wheeler at Citizens Bank Park.

Whatever was plaguing Wheeler his last time out certainly wasn't holding him back in the Phillies' 4-2 win over the Nats. The staff ace leaned heavily on an electric fastball while limiting Washington to two runs over 7 1/3 innings and striking out six.

“Wheels being Wheels,” said outfielder Brandon Marsh. “He's as electric as it gets.”

Though Wheeler uncharacteristically walked three batters for a second straight start, that's where the similarities ended. Plus, two of the free passes this time around were four-pitch walks in a second inning that proved to be an outlier in an otherwise dominant outing.

Wheeler said he made a mechanical adjustment -- staying over his lower half more and slowing down a bit -- after that rocky second inning that included a Keibert Ruiz RBI double.

It worked.

Wheeler's four-seamer averaged 96.3 mph, his fastest in any start this season -- and nearly two mph above his average (94.6). He threw his four fastest pitches of the season, topping out at 97.8 on a called third strike to Joey Meneses to end the top of the first.

In his first nine starts, Wheeler threw only nine pitches 97 mph or faster. He threw 15 on Friday.

“Felt like my fastball played a little better today, even when it started to drop down a little bit [in the later innings],” Wheeler said. “Just felt more in rhythm and behind the ball -- coming out clean.”

With his plus-fastball working, Wheeler uncorked a season-high 56 of them, accounting for 53.8 percent of his 104 pitches (68 strikes). Wheeler induced 10 swings and misses with his fastball (and 17 overall), and fired in another 10 for called strikes.

“I thought his stuff was as good as I've seen all year, really,” manager Rob Thomson said. “Velocity was up, splitter was good. ... He was really good.”

Nationals manager Dave Martinez had a similar take: “He’s really good. He’s got a good fastball; good movement on his fastball. He’s got a good splitter, good curveball. He’s got a little sweeper working now. He’s got good stuff. He’s a tough opponent.”

Wheeler’s mechanical tweaks came at the perfect time. Just as he flipped the switch against the Nats’ offense, the Phils’ bats went completely silent.

Alec Bohm hit an RBI double in the first, and the Phillies added a pair of runs on a wild pitch and Kyle Schwarber’s RBI groundout in the second. In the third, Marsh drove in Bryson Stott -- who started a two-out rally with a perfect bunt single on his bobble figurine night -- with an RBI double.

Marsh’s two-out hit in the third would prove to be Philadelphia’s final hit of the night. In fact, the Phillies did not have a single baserunner from the fourth inning onward.

“He set the tone for us tonight,” Marsh said of Wheeler. “He was on a mission, and we just followed suit and followed him and he carried us to the victory.”

It was an impressive bounceback not only for Wheeler but also for a Phillies team that lost a dramatic series finale against the Mets in 11 innings just one night earlier. With the win, the Phils still have not lost back-to-back games since April 23-24 in Cincinnati.

“That’s what good teams do is bounce back and fight from behind and just do a lot of stuff right,” Wheeler said. “That’s how you win games.”

The Phillies have done plenty of winning so far in 2024. Their 32-14 record is tied for the best 46-game start in franchise history, matching the 1993 and ‘76 clubs.

And Friday’s formula was a perfect example: score early and pitch well.

The Phillies have now scored 101 runs in the first three innings of a game this season -- 14 more than any other team in the Majors. They’ve scored in the first three frames in each of their four games against the Nationals.

When you pair that early offense with a pitching staff that has a National League-best 3.17 team ERA (third best in MLB), there isn’t much hope for the opposition.

It also helps when your ace is throwing his best fastball of the season.

“Throwing harder definitely helps,” Wheeler said. “But it's not everything, obviously.”