Zack Wheeler grew up in Smyrna, Ga., less than 10 miles from Atlanta’s Truist Park. He thought the Braves would draft him in the first round in 2009 until the San Francisco Giants swooped in one pick earlier. His first major-league start came in Atlanta, and he has faced the Braves more than any team except the Washington Nationals.
It’s fitting, then, that he returns to his hometown for the biggest start of his career.
“Now that I look back, I’m kind of glad the Braves didn’t choose me,” Wheeler told me earlier this season. “I would’ve had to deal with all that [pressure] at a young age. It was nice to kind of get away and sort of do my thing and develop and all that.”
Wheeler has developed into an elite pitcher in the last two seasons with the Phillies. This year, he’s a Cy Young Award contender. There isn’t anyone the Phillies would rather have on the mound tonight for the opener of their biggest series in 10 years.
The Phillies are 2½ games behind the Braves with six games left. They need to win at least two of three games — and they probably need a sweep — to have a real shot at the NL East title.
In 20 career starts against the Braves, Wheeler is 8-6 with a 3.27 ERA, including 3-5 with a 4.21 ERA in Atlanta. But he has mostly dominated them in the last two seasons, going 2-1 with a 1.60 ERA, 45 strikeouts, and seven walks in 39⅓ innings over six starts.
“It’s another start for me,” Wheeler said last week. “Can’t get too worked up about it. I know it’s important. I know it’s a big series for us. But at the same time, you’ve just got to relax and go out there and just pitch. It doesn’t matter that it’s in Atlanta where I live. I’ve just got to go out there and pitch my game.”
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Will the Braves pitch to Bryce Harper? Can the Phillies get out Freddie Freeman? Matt Breen has everything you need to know to get ready for the big series.
Do the Phillies really need to sweep the Braves? Matt and I break it down in our latest roundtable.
In case you missed it last week, Mike Schmidt thinks Harper should be the NL MVP, as he wrote in a column for the Associated Press.
Tonight: Wheeler vs. righty Charlie Morton in Atlanta, 7:20 p.m.
Tomorrow: Aaron Nola vs. Braves ace lefty Max Fried, 7:20 p.m.
Thursday: Kyle Gibson faces Atlanta righty Ian Anderson, 7:20 p.m.
Friday: Ranger Suárez starts series opener in Miami, 7:10 p.m.
Stat of the day
How’s this for a scheduling quirk: Nine of the Phillies’ first 35 games — and 12 of the first 61 — were against the Braves, but the division rivals haven’t squared off since July 25.
A lot has changed since then.
Of the 47 players who appeared in the teams’ four-game series July 22-25 at Citizens Bank Park, 15 are either inactive this week or no longer in the Phillies’ or Braves’ organizations. The Braves hadn’t acquired outfielders Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario, or reliever Richard Rodríguez; the Phillies hadn’t traded for Gibson, Ian Kennedy, or Freddy Galvis. Rhys Hoskins was still in the Phillies’ lineup; Travis d’Arnaud was still out of the Braves’.
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Question: Should the Phils make the playoffs, will Nola be in the rotation? My vote is no. Probably moot, I guess. I’m 72 and a lifelong Philly guy, so I am always prepared for disappointment. — Marc W., via email
Answer: Thanks, Marc. The Phillies may break your heart, but at least they keep it interesting. They could be playing out the string this week, like so many other teams. It could be worse.
To your question, yes, Nola would be in the playoff rotation. He’s had a disappointing season, to be sure, but he’s easily the Phillies’ second-best starter. Now, if you want to claim that Nola should start Game 3 at home, where his ERA is 3.86 compared to 5.32 on the road, well, you’ll get no argument here.