Let’s be real about what this is and where the Phillies are. It was natural and expected that there would be sentiment and nostalgia and syrupy-sweet feelings drizzled everywhere once the Major League Baseball season began Thursday and Friday. Summer had finally and officially begun, there was some normalcy through the piped-in crowd noise, even a pandemic couldn’t stop Opening Day, it could only delay it for a while — good vibes, all.
But those vibes were always going to fade, and the games would commence, and there are going to be just 60 of them in this regular season, and the Phillies lost their first, to the Marlins. You could say it was one game and it wasn’t that big a deal. And you’d be right. But you could also say it was a loss to a division rival — and a lesser team — in late July, the time in any baseball season when the games start to matter more. And you’d also be right. They were sluggish and didn’t hit, and if they lost again Saturday … no, there wouldn’t be panic, but there wouldn’t be blissful comfort, either.
For the five days before Zack Wheeler took the ball for his first start as a Phillie, these implications and ramifications probably weren’t at the forefront of his mind. He could be forgiven for that. His wife, Dominique, was pregnant with their first child; her due date was Saturday. But Wesley Wheeler — 7 pounds, 12 ounces — arrived Monday night. So Zack and his family came home from the hospital on Wednesday, and he threw from a mound Thursday, and there he was Saturday at Citizens Bank Park, doing what a top-of-the-rotation starter is supposed to do. Seven innings, five hits, one run in a 7-1 Phillies win, a solid and needed victory in a pennant race.
That’s what this is: a pennant race. It might not feel like one, because this strange and short season is just getting going, but it is one. In any other year, the Phillies would be 104 games in, and everyone would be wondering what changes or additions they might make at the trade deadline. Instead, everyone might have been wondering how the Phillies’ major free-agent acquisition of the offseason, their $118-million man (minus roughly $13.5 million this season, per his prorated salary), would perform in his first start in the first significant stretch run of his career.
Remember: Over his seven years with the Mets, Wheeler missed two full seasons because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament and his subsequent Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation. Those empty seasons, 2015 and 2016, were the only two that the Mets reached the playoffs during his tenure with them.
“That was a disappointment for sure,” he said. “Nothing I could really do about it. I wanted to be there and pitch in meaningful games. Now that I’m with the Phillies, that’s our goal, is to make it to the playoffs and hopefully make it to the World Series and win the thing. It starts with us on the mound, putting up zeroes.”
His manager, by all indications, believes the same thing. Joe Girardi didn’t coddle his starters at all through the Phillies’ first two games. He sent Aaron Nola out for a sixth inning Friday night — and got burned for it — and he rode Wheeler for seven innings on Saturday. During camp, Girardi had hinted that 60 pitches would be a reasonable threshold for any starter. Yet Nola threw 80, and Wheeler threw 87 — the last a 97.5-mph fastball that he blew past Garrett Cooper for his fourth strikeout. The notion that Girardi might want to temper his two aces, or that they might have to be tempered because of their irregular preparation and training, hasn’t applied so far.
“I think it’s a function of how hard our guys worked when they were away from spring training,” Girardi said. “For me to say we were going to get 85 (pitches) from them before we got our eyes on them would have been silly. So we were conservative because we wanted to see where guys were at. They can tell you they’re doing this or that, but you’ve got to make sure that you feel comfortable putting them in those positions, and they’ve allowed us to do that because of how hard they worked.”
Wheeler, aware of his career-long tendency to pitch poorly early in a season, did his best during the layoff to tire himself out — to train so much that, once the games resumed, he would be crisp and ready. He threw three live batting-practice sessions a week, each session lasting at least 80 pitches. In his last exhibition outing, last Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, the day before Wesley was born, Wheeler had thrown 86 pitches but lasted just 4 1/3 innings.
“I was just all out of sync,” he said. “I had a lot of other stuff on my mind.”