It hardly seems possible considering Zack Wheeler is turning in a season that’s turning back the clock to at least the days of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. But just when you think he can’t be any better, he delivers another gem.
And try as they might, the Phillies didn’t waste it this time.
Wheeler’s latest: 12 strikeouts in eight scoreless, walk-free innings Thursday against the Atlanta Braves. It would have been spectacular even if the offense gave him more run support, Héctor Neris didn’t blown a save in the ninth inning, and another walk on the wild side by José Alvarado in the 10th didn’t leave the Phillies three outs from a crushing defeat.
But they rallied for three runs in the bottom of the 10th, Jean Segura delivering the decisive blow with a two-run single off the top of the left-field wall for a 4-3 victory. And after Odúbel Herrera slid across home plate on his belly with the winning run, the Phillies poured onto the field and swarmed Segura in shallow left field to celebrate their second walk-off win in as many games.
“When you’re struggling a little bit here and there, you look for those type of moments,” Wheeler said. “[Wednesday night] speaks for itself. It doesn’t matter how we get the win. As long as you get it. These past two days have been exciting, and hopefully we can carry it into this weekend.”
After dropping the series opener, 9-5, Tuesday night, the Phillies (30-31) scored a total of six runs in the last two games. But they won both -- on game-ending hits, no less -- and moved into second place, a half-game ahead of the Braves (29-31).
Newly recalled rookie Luke Williams played the hero Wednesday night with his two-run homer in the ninth inning. But although Segura came up with the big hit Thursday, manager Joe Girardi had no trouble picking the star of this game.
“Wheeler pitched fantastic,” he said. “He’s a big reason that we had a chance to win that game. This is a very good lineup that hits the ball out of the ballpark, and he was great.”
Indeed, Wheeler allowed four hits, all singles. He didn’t permit a runner beyond first base. He reached double digits in strikeouts for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last five starts. He lowered his ERA to 2.29.
Beginning with a three-hit shutout of the Milwaukee Brewers on May 6, Wheeler has allowed eight runs in 51 2/3 innings over his last seven starts for a 1.39 ERA. In his last nine starts, he has given up a total of 13 runs, four of which came in the first inning May 1 against the New York Mets.
And then there’s this: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wheeler is the first Phillies pitcher since 1891 to have two games in which he struck out at least 10 batters without allowing a run and a walk.
Any way you slice it, Wheeler has been dominant.
“I’ve had a couple good runs a couple different years, but it wasn’t like it is now,” Wheeler said. “I think the difference is I’m throwing the cutter a lot more, slider’s getting a lot better, and I can command mostly all of those pitches. When you can command and get ahead of guys, it makes it a lot easier.”
Wheeler credited pitching coach Caleb Cotham with turning his slider from a pitch that he “hoped somebody’s going to swing at” to being a “good swing-and-miss pitch.” Girardi agreed that commanding the slider has been the difference in turning Wheeler from a good pitcher to one of the best in baseball.
“He has always had the dominant fastball, and he has the two -- the four- and the two-seamer,” Girardi said. “But he has used his slider much more effectively and has used his curveball much more effectively. I think it gets them off that one [fastball] speed.”
Braves starter Ian Anderson was outstanding, too. The Phillies finally broke the scoreless stalemate in the eighth inning on Segura’s one-out double off third baseman Austin Riley’s glove.
But Neris blew his first save -- and allowed his first run -- since May 8 in Atlanta. With one out in the ninth, he gave up a game-tying solo homer to Freddie Freeman. It appeared Herrera either mistimed his jump or wasn’t close enough to the fence in straightaway center field to steal a home run.
“I don’t think it’s a ball he should have caught,” Girardi said. “I think it’s a ball he could have caught.”
The Braves scored twice in the 10th on three walks, a wild pitch, and a passed ball by Alvarado, who has 22 walks in 21 2/3 innings this season.
But after somehow losing Wheeler’s last two starts, seven-inning masterpieces against the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals, they couldn’t possibly drop another. Not after Alec Bohm’s RBI single, a double by Herrera, and Segura’s turn at ending the game with one swing.
“The way [Wheeler’s] been pitching all year long is awesome,” Segura said. “You can play defense with your eyes closed. His stuff is really, really good. I don’t know why he’s not being mentioned way more. He deserves to get more mention by the league, by everybody because his stuff is really, really good.”
It’s never been more evident. And it’s about time the Phillies took advantage.
Before the game, the Phillies put pitcher Chase Anderson on the COVID-19 restricted list and recalled Rafael Marchán from triple-A. ... Minor-league pitcher Brady Lail was outrighted to triple-A. The move opens a spot on the 40-man roster, presumably for outfielder Adam Haseley, who must be reinstated from the restricted list by Saturday. ... The Phillies have a rare Friday off. Vince Velasquez will start Saturday against the Yankees followed by Aaron Nola on Sunday. Spencer Howard, slated to start Saturday, will be pushed back to Monday night in Los Angeles.