PHOENIX – It’s been hard to find new ways to describe Zack Wheeler’s postseason dominance, but his performance against the Phillies on Saturday night in Game 5 of the NLCS may have been the most important thing he’s done so far in his career.
The Phillies used their bullpen for 26 outings in Games 3 and 4, losing to Arizona. If Wheeler had gone 5 in 5 games, if he hadn’t had the order, the Phillies would have been in danger, possibly coming home needing two wins in a row to remain undefeated.
Craig Kimbrel was down after throwing 45 pitches two nights ago. So was Orion Kerkering riding back-to-back nights for the first time in his life. Jose Alvarado was there, but the Phillies 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 need the law. He went seven, never stopping running until his final frame. He struck out eight. He walked alone. He entered having allowed the fewest hits per inning in an MLB game and that hasn’t changed.
Wheeler has made 10 playoff hits. His opponents are hitting .164/.211/.256. That’s 232 appearances by Wheeler, turning some of the best hitters in baseball into pitcher equivalents.
The Phillies needed him more than ever on Saturday night and he answered the call in a 6-1 victory that put them up 3-2 in the NLCS.
“You could tell his shoulders were a little heavy today, but every time it happened, he seemed to step up well,” catcher JT Realmuto said.
“You just see from the first pitch, he’s trying to attack the bullpen. He was focused all day before the pitchers’ meeting, he was locked in. A lot of times, the Wheels in the Barrels’ meetings, it’s like, ‘Are they listening to what we’re saying right now?’
“He was very interested in how we could attack this person, how we could get this person out again. He was engaged.”
The only pitcher with a playoff ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate that matches Wheeler’s in most innings is Bob Gibson. Seriously.
The Phillies wouldn’t be here without him. They would have been in the 2022 World Series without him. Wheeler released Gerrit Cole, who signed for nearly three times as much money that same season. This year’s Cy Young winners could be Cole and Spencer Strider or Zac Gallen. When you consider not only Wheeler’s production but his timing, 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 players I’ve ever played with,'” Bryce Harper said. “I’ve played with a lot of good ones, and he’s easily in the top three.
“He just has complete confidence in his ability to throw any pitch. He’s fearless. As a baseball player you watch that, you watch a moment of wonder every time he goes out there.
“That’s why he’s here. That’s why he gets to do this every Friday. I just love watching him do it. It’s amazing what he does.”
The NLCS now returns to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Monday night and Game 7 (if necessary) on Tuesday. Aaron Nola will pitch Game 6. Ranger Suarez could start Game 7. Suarez spent Saturday night in the bullpen and could have been used if the game was close or Wheeler’s night was short.
Add this to the list of reasons Wheeler became so important. It’s one less inning on Suarez’s arm and one less look the Diamondbacks had at the pitcher they’ll see again.
“With the condition of our bullpen and what they’ve been through the last few days, Wheels pushed themselves to play,” Realmuto said.
“It was big if I stole a little bit back from the boys. We saw how they responded when we beat them two games at home, they came back and punched us in the mouth. It’s great to be back home, but we’ve got to put our work caps on. They’re coming to play, so we hope the team can get behind us. to carry us some more.”