CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Zack Wheeler was the last Phillies starter to take the mound in a Grapefruit League game this spring, but you needed to see just the first inning of his outing on Tuesday to determine that he is on track to start the season.
Wheeler, pitching for the third time this spring, struck out the first three batters he faced in a 5-1 win over Minnesota. His fastball -- 96 mph -- was powerful and the swings-and-misses -- five in the first inning -- were plentiful. Wheeler is ready.
Now, it’s a matter of learning what day the Phillies will need him. Aaron Nola, the presumed opening-day starter, missed his scheduled start Monday with the flu. It’s still to be determined if Nola can gear up in time to pitch March 26 in Miami. If not, the Phillies would likely turn to Wheeler, who otherwise is expected to start the second game of the season.
“If they need me, whenever they need me, I’ll be ready,” said Wheeler, who finished with six strikeouts in four innings.
Nola was at Spectrum Field on Tuesday, a day after he was scratched from his start and sent home. Manager Joe Girardi said Nola feels better and could log a bullpen session on Thursday. He would then pitch Saturday in a simulated game. If all goes well, Girardi believes Nola would be ready for the start of the season.
“You have to see how he comes in on Thursday, but it shouldn’t change his stuff,” Girardi said.
But it’s good to have a Plan B. Wheeler held the Twins to four hits and a walk on Tuesday. He even had a single as the Phillies elected not to use a designated hitter. Wheeler’s lone run allowed came on a towering homer by Twins prospect Royce Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. Wheeler said his fastball was the best it has been this spring.
“I was a little bit more in sync today and that allowed me to just let it go and not really try to throw it,” Wheeler said. “It just comes out, and today it had a little more life and was a lot better.”
Wheeler recorded the second out of the first inning with a strikeout of former Phillies minor-leaguer Willians Astudillo, who has struck out in just 3.3% of his 2,864 career plate appearances between the majors and the minors. Wheeler threw a nasty two-seamer that cut inside on the right-handed Astudillo, leaving no chance as he swung and missed. It was a good sign that the team’s $118 million pitcher is ready.
“He has four pitches that are effective,” Girardi said. “He has that velo in the tank when he needs it. We believe that he's going to make jumps even better than he has been. He pitched really well last year for the Mets, especially the second half of the season. But we're excited about what he's going to bring to us.”
Nick Pivetta pitched Tuesday afternoon in a simulated game at the Carpenter Complex, throwing roughly 80 pitches in five innings against a cast of Yankees minor-leaguers. He remains entrenched in the race for the fifth starter, which still does not have a clear leader with opening day almost two weeks away. And it’s hard to make judgments in that competition based on simulated games.
“Sometimes those kids light them up. I mean, it’s unbelievable. You think you’ve got kids set up and you don’t have them set up,” Girardi said. “When I saw he could throw his curveball over at any time, he threw some really good changeups, his fastball had life, that’s what I’m evaluating.”
Didi Gregorius picked up his first Grapefruit League hit and then picked up a souvenir. Gregorius stroked an RBI single in the first inning to snap an 0-for-22 slump. Upon returning to the dugout, Girardi handed his shortstop a baseball with a joke message on it.
“They put 0-for 82 on it,” said Gregorius, who actually had been 0-for-22. “I finally broke an 0-for-82.”
The Phillies never seemed to be concerned about Gregorius, who was going to open the season as the starting shortstop no matter how many or few hits he finished spring with. But it was a welcoming sign to see him go 2-for-2 Tuesday.
“I’ve been feeling good,” he said. “I’ve been hitting the ball hard. That’s all that matters at the end of spring training. In the season, they’ve got to drop.”
And about that ball?
“It wasn’t really the ball but don’t tell him,” Girardi said. “First hit as a Phillie, broke an 0-for-82 stretch.”
J.T. Realmuto experienced the agony of making an out on Tuesday and the thrill of hitting a homer on the same pitch. He spiked his bat into the ground after hitting a fly ball to left field, believing it was the second out of the fourth inning. Then he watched it sail over the fence for his second homer of spring.
“He said he hit it off the end of the bat,” Girardi said.