The Phillies had not yet scored Sunday when Zack Wheeler ran down the first-base line. He was not sprinting, Wheeler said after a needed 4-2 win over the New York Mets, but he was not jogging either. The pitcher dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt in the second inning at Citi Field and was “striding” to first.
“I try to put a little pressure on whoever it goes to, to make the good throw,” Wheeler said. “That’s just my mindset down there.”
His strong stride proved to be enough as second baseman Jeff McNeil dropped the throw at first base from pitcher Marcus Stroman. The runners -- Nick Maton and Ronald Torreyes -- moved up a base, but more importantly Wheeler was safe. And that mattered when Odúbel Herrera followed with a sacrifice fly that would have ended the inning but instead drove in the game’s first run.
The Phillies needed a performance like the one Wheeler delivered on Sunday as he pitched seven shutout innings and struck out eight while allowing just four hits and two walks. As he has been all season, Wheeler was excellent on the mound. On Sunday, he helped with his stride.
“That’s why I’ve always liked the NL,” Wheeler said. “You have to get the bunts down and move the runner. It’s the small things that add up sometimes. If you put the ball in play, sometimes good things happen. That’s the mindset of going up there: making the pitcher throw some pitches, get his pitch count up, and just being a tough at-bat. Even if you don’t come out of there with a hit, just be a tough at-bat.”
The Phillies left New York with a split of their four-game series. They are still three games below .500 and trail the Mets by five games. They were in position to win all four games against the division leaders but they blew saves in three of the four games.
The Phils play a rescheduled game Monday in Cincinnati before a six-game homestand against the pesky Miami Marlins and the powerful San Diego Padres. Sunday’s win was nice, but it was a reminder of what the weekend could have been.
“We could have had four. We got two, but we could have had four. That’s kind of how I leave,” manager Joe Girardi said before boarding the flight out of New York. “But we have to move on and we have to finish strong going into the break.”
Archie Bradley allowed a homer in Sunday’s ninth inning but recorded his first save with the Phils after José Alvarado -- the team’s new closer in place of Héctor Neris -- allowed a run in the eighth to create a save situation. Bradley and Alvarado both blew saves this weekend, but Girardi said Alvarado remains his closer.
He deployed Alvarado into the eighth inning so the left-hander could face the top of the Mets’ lineup. Francisco Lindor ripped a double and scored on a single by Pete Alonso. Alvarado made it interesting before striking out Michael Conforto and James McCann. Bradley allowed a homer to Kevin Pillar but retired the three other batters he faced in the ninth. The bullpen cracked but did not collapse.
“We had a bad day on Wednesday,” Girardi said of the bullpen. “Friday the runs were unearned. Saturday the runs were unearned. Right? It was our defense. When you start asking people to get four outs, sometimes that leads to problems. Now I know they’re capable of getting four outs. And I know we walked some guys in there. But our defense really hurt us. We didn’t give up an earned run on Friday.”
The Phillies starters -- Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Matt Moore -- allowed just one earned run this weekend in 23 1/3 innings. The four pitchers combined for a 0.39 ERA against the first-place Mets, putting the Phils in position to climb the standings. But the defense burnt them, the lineup struggled, and the bullpen was unreliable. The Phils did not waste Wheeler’s performance on Sunday.
“We struggled the last time through, so we knew we had to turn that around and get that going like we were,” Wheeler said. “We have the right guys to do it with the starting staff. Everyone made a good turn and you just try to follow up their performances and one-up them. That’s the best way to go about it. It’s a friendly competition. That’s how you push each other.”
Wheeler’s bunt helped push the Phillies to an early lead. They would tack on three more runs, building a lead big enough for their bullpen to protect. Torreyes and Andrew McCutchen each had three hits. Maton doubled in a run and scored twice. The Phillies left nine runners on base, but they could survive that with the way Wheeler was pitching.
He was dominant as he lowered his ERA to 2.20. It was the type of performance the Phillies needed. It wasn’t enough to make up for the weekend, but it was enough to salvage it.
“We really needed it. He was outstanding,” Girardi said. “Seven great innings. He was efficient with his pitches on a really hot day. It was really humid today. Like the difference between Friday and Sunday was unbelievable when it comes to weather. And we needed it. His hustle just on the bunt made a difference in that game because he gets to first because he hustled. Zack was really, really good again today.”