PHOENIX — It’s getting hard to find new ways to describe Zach Wheeler’s postseason dominance, but what he did for the Phillies on Saturday night in Game 5 of the NLCS might be the most important thing he’s done to this point in your career.
The Phillies used their bullpen for 26 outs in Games 3 and 4, both losses in Arizona. If Wheeler had gone five innings in Game 5, if he had lacked command, the Phillies would have been in a compromised position, potentially going home needing to win two straight to avoid elimination.
Craig Kimbrel is out after striking out 45 batters over the last two nights. So was Orion Kerkering, after playing back-to-back nights for the first time in his life. Jose Alvarado was available, but the Phillies really wanted to stay away from him because it would be the third straight day and the first appearance covered two innings.
Wheeler didn’t go five innings. He did not lack command. He struck out seven without giving up a run until his final frame. He struck out eight. He walked alone. He entered having allowed the fewest baserunners per inning of any pitcher in MLB playoff history, and that hasn’t changed.
Wheeler has 10 starts in the playoffs. His opponents hit .164/.211/.256. That’s 232 appearances by Wheeler, making some of baseball’s best players the equivalent of a pitcher.
The Phillies needed him more than ever on Saturday night, and he answered the call again in a 6-1 victory that put them up 3-2 in the NLCS.
“You could tell there was a lot of weight on his shoulders today, but every time that happens, he seems to step up for us and throw well,” catcher JT Realmuto said.
“You could see him from one pitch, he was trying to attack the strike zone. He was focused all day in his pregame routine, our pitchers’ meeting, he was locked in. A lot of times, Colella in the pitchers meetings, it’s like, “Is he even listening to us right now?”
“He was more interested in how do we attack that guy, how do we get him out the second time. He was engaged.’
The only pitcher with a playoff ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate that matches Wheeler’s in as many innings is Bob Gibson. Seriously.
Phyllis wouldn’t be here without him. They wouldn’t be in the 2022 World Series without him. Wheeler passed Gerrit Cole, who signed for nearly three times as much money in the same offseason. The Cy Young winners this year could be Cole and Spencer Strider or Zac Gallen. When you consider not only Wheeler’s production, but the timing of it, he might be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball right now.
“I told him after the game, I was like, ‘You’re one of the best pitchers I’ve ever played with, man,'” Bryce Harper said. “I’ve played with a lot of good players and he’s easily in the top three.
“He just has complete confidence in his ability to throw any pitch in any count. He is not afraid. As a baseball player watching this, you’re watching just an incredible moment every time he goes out there.
“That’s why he’s here. That’s why he gets to do this every fifth day. I just love seeing him do it. It’s incredible what he does.”
The NLCS now moves back to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Monday night and Game 7 (if necessary) on Tuesday. Aaron Nola will pitch Game 6. Ranger Suarez will start Game 7. Suarez spent Saturday night in the bullpen and would have been used had the game been closer or Wheeler’s night shorter.
Add that to the list of reasons why Wheeler’s start was so important. That’s at least one less inning for Suarez’s arm and one less look from the Diamondbacks’ lineup at a pitcher they might see again.
“With the state our bullpen was in and what they’ve been through the last few days, the Wheels set out to go deep in the game,” Realmuto said.
“It was great to steal some momentum from those guys. We saw how they reacted after we beat them two games at home, they came back and punched us right in the mouth. It’s exciting to be back home, but we have to put on our work hats. They’re going to come to play, so hopefully the crowd can get behind us and lift us up even more.”