Zack Wheeler dug deep to find 96 mph and pumped a called strike on his 97th pitch to end the sixth inning Wednesday night.
That was enough for Phillies manager Joe Girardi.
Wheeler has done more than enough this season. There isn’t a pitcher in baseball who has thrown more pitches (3,110) or worked more innings (206⅓) the year after a pandemic cut everyone’s workload by two-thirds. It’s more than even Wheeler expected.
“It kind of surprised me, to be honest,” he said earlier this week, “how good I felt this year so far and throughout.”
But the endurance test isn’t over yet. The Phillies probably won’t overtake the Atlanta Braves in the next 10 days and win the National League East, but then again, they might. A 16.2% chance, according to Fangraphs, is better than zero, which is what their postseason odds would be if anything happened to their best pitcher and Cy Young Award candidate.
So with the innings piling up, the Phillies last month implemented the Wheeler Conservation Plan. They curbed the 31-year-old right-hander at less than 100 pitches in four of his last five starts. Since Girardi stuck with him in the ninth inning Aug. 25 only to see him give up a single, double, and three-run homer in a 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Wheeler hasn’t come close to being overextended.
“They’re just looking out for me,” he said. “I communicate with them in between starts how I feel, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. I want to keep pitching for the rest of the season and hopefully into the playoffs, and I think we’re helping that cause by doing what we’re doing.”
It worked. Wheeler made it to the final week. Now it’s on the Phillies to ensure that his last two starts are the most important of his career.
Wheeler is scheduled to start Tuesday night in his hometown of Atlanta in the opener of a potentially ginormous three-game series. Then, if the Phillies are somehow still alive, he would start Game 162 a week from Sunday in Miami. Given that they’re trailing the Braves by three games (four in the loss column) with 10 to play, it will almost certainly will go down to the wire if the Phillies are going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
By scaling back Wheeler to 95 pitches on Aug. 30 in Washington, 99 on Sept. 6 in Milwaukee, and 93 on Sept. 17 in New York before Wednesday night’s start against the Baltimore Orioles, the Phillies probably conserved one inning per start. They still won each of those games.
Maybe they will be inclined to let Wheeler press down on the gas pedal again, especially against the Braves.
“I’m sure it will depend on the situation, right?” said Wheeler, who leads the majors with 240 strikeouts and ranks fifth in the NL with a 2.79 ERA. “I’m fine with going out there and getting one more inning or whatever. But it’s Joe’s call ultimately, and we’re just trying to be smart about these next few starts so I can keep going.”
Getting there without ceding more ground to the Braves will be the challenge. Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson, and Ranger Suarez will start the next three games against the 94-loss Pittsburgh Pirates at Citizens Bank Park. But Sunday will fall to the bullpen, which has been taxed by four previous bullpen games in lieu of a No. 5 starter and an offense that has averaged three runs and seven hits per game over the last week.
So, yes, the Phillies face bigger questions than how Wheeler is feeling. But considering he’s the only 200-inning pitcher so far in the majors – only three others have even gotten to 190 – and has topped his previous career-high total by 5.6%, it’s fair to at least wonder.
“I think he’s doing probably about as good as he can,” Girardi said.
Wheeler’s four-seam fastball did lose a fraction of its zip against the Orioles, averaging 96.3 mph compared to his season average of 97.2 mph. Of his 19 pitches in the sixth inning, only six were four-seamers, an indication he may have been tiring.
But it’s a testament to how well Wheeler is pitching that he could lean on his curveball the second and third time through the Orioles’ lineup and still hold them to one run on four hits. He racked up nine strikeouts, three on curveballs.
It appears Wheeler has enough in the tank for a finishing kick. Like many of his teammates, including Nola and catcher J.T. Realmuto, he hasn’t experienced the postseason. He was recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery in 2015 when the New York Mets went to the World Series and was unable to make it back for their wild-card run in 2016.
Last year, the Phillies were not yet eliminated when Wheeler started the penultimate game and gave up a season-high four runs on seven hits in a 4-3 loss at Tampa Bay.
The Phillies are guaranteed to at least have what former manager Gabe Kapler once described as “a chip and a chair” in the NL East race when they get to Atlanta’s Truist Park, less than 5 miles from where Wheeler grew up and about 20 from East Paulding High in Dallas, Ga., where his number is retired.
But will they be close enough when he takes the mound Tuesday night to have a real shot?
“It’s another start for me,” Wheeler said. “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 there, pitch my game, and hopefully do well.”
Wheeler made it to this point. The Phillies owe it to him to make sure it will matter.