In the interest of full disclosure, Zack Wheeler didn’t have to contend Sunday with three of the four best Boston Red Sox hitters.
Guess what? It wouldn’t have mattered.
Wheeler didn’t throw baseball’s seventh no-hitter this season in the Phillies’ had-to-have-it 6-2 victory, but it wasn’t for a lack of stuff. He has dominated this month -- all season, if we’re being honest -- with a fastball that hums in the upper-90s. But he also had his slider sizzling, and although he threw only six curveballs, he produced four swings-and-misses with it.
With or without resting Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez and banged-up Alex Verdugo until he pinch-hit in the ninth inning, the Red Sox didn’t stand a chance.
Wheeler gave the Phillies the star turn that they desperately needed at the end of a difficult week. They snapped a four-game losing streak and bookended a 2-4 homestand that precedes another three-city, nine-game road trip beginning Monday night against the Miami Marlins. Hello again thorn, meet the Phillies’ side.
“Honestly, it popped in my head [Saturday] night after the loss, I was like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get back on the right track, and it kind of comes down to me,’” Wheeler said. “I didn’t put any more pressure on myself when I was out there. Kind of just pitched my game and did my thing, but yeah, I knew it was a big game for us. Hopefully today starts a new little run for us.”
Indeed, it was imperative that Wheeler subdue one of the highest-scoring offenses in baseball. With Bryce Harper getting a day off, Brad Miller started in right field and bashed a three-run home run in a four-run first inning against Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodríguez. But make no mistake, the Phillies hopped on Wheeler’s back and rode their co-ace as far as he could take them.
As usual, it was deep into the game.
“We talked about it today, how important it was,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We didn’t talk about it with him, but as a group, we talked about it. Our bullpen was [in] a little bit better [shape] today than it was yesterday, but this is good. We can reset a little bit, and it really helps.”
Wheeler gave up a 474-foot solo home run to Franchy Cordero in the eighth inning, the only blemish against him. But he went 7 1/3 innings, the sixth time in 10 starts that he completed at least seven. He retired 17 consecutive batters at one point and matched his career high with 12 strikeouts. In his last six starts, he has given up eight earned runs (including four in one inning May 1 against the New York Mets) in 44 1/3 innings for a 1.64 ERA.
In 10 starts overall this season, Wheeler has a 2.38 ERA. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the first Phillies pitcher with a sub-2.50 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP in his first 10 starts of a season since Roy Halladay in 2011. In 21 starts since the Phillies signed Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract, he has a 2.65 ERA.
Any way you want to look it, Wheeler has been elite.
“There’s a ton of ways to quantify things now, but just the old-fashioned way, you watch him pitch, he seems pretty dominant,” Miller said. “I’ve noticed it takes guys a couple swings a couple times through the order to even be competitive. I think it was big today jumping out early and letting him cruise because it’s hard to throw a shutout every time. But when you’ve got a little cushion, I think he can really go into attack mode.”
After falling behind in back-to-back games against the Red Sox and scoring a total of one run in the last two games of the previous series against the Marlins, the Phillies jumped out in the first inning for their first lead since Tuesday night. Rhys Hoskins beat the shift with a two-out, two-strike RBI single to the right side, and two batters later, Miller hit a full-count fastball into the netting attached to the left-field foul pole.
And thanks again to Wheeler, the Phillies played from in front for the entire game.
Kiké Hernández dropped Wheeler’s third pitch of the game in front of Miller for a leadoff single. And that was all the Red Sox would get until Hernández rolled a harder-hit single up the middle with two out in the sixth. Danny Santana walked to offer the resemblance of a rally, but Wheeler threw three fastballs to dangerous Rafael Devers before getting him to foul tip a slider into catcher Andrew Knapp’s mitt.
“Raffy put a good swing, pulled foul, and [Wheeler] executed his pitches,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “But he’s one of the best. He’s very impressive.”
Wheeler has done it all year with primarily his fastball. The slider is an effective counterweight and he spots the curveball and changeup. But coming into the game, opponents were batting only .215 and slugging .290 against his four-seamer, a more effective pitch than even last season when hitters batted .297 and slugged .405 against it.
“I think my ball’s a little more true this year,” Wheeler said. “I’m a little more behind it, so maybe the spin rate -- I don’t even pay attention to that stuff -- maybe it’s up a little bit. Fastball command’s been there for the most part. But it’s mostly true, so I think it plays a little better.”
Also true: Whatever you may think of the Phillies’ 23-24 start, they’d be nowhere without Wheeler.
“He’s been really important to us, even last year,” Girardi said. “He’s gone deep into games. He’s been great. And he was great again today.”
Just when the Phillies needed it.