MILWAUKEE — Zack Wheeler’s 99th pitch on Monday afternoon — a 96.7-mph fastball — was one of the better pitches he fired in a 12-0 win over the Brewers. It would also be his last.
He pumped the fastball past a swinging Omar Navez for his ninth strikeout and the final out of the sixth inning before returning to the dugout, where Joe Girardi told him his day was finished.
Girardi pushed Wheeler, the major-league leader in innings, for most of the season. But with four weeks remaining in the season, the Phillies are trying to preserve their top pitcher for the stretch run.
They gave Wheeler an extra day of rest by moving his start from Sunday to Monday and made sure to keep him from throwing 100 pitches against the Brewers despite arriving here with a taxed bullpen.
“An extra day or two this past start definitely helped,” Wheeler said on a day when the Phillies smacked six home runs. “I have a lot of innings, especially after not doing too much last year. We’re trying to be smart about it. The performance kind of showed that I was getting a little tired, fatigued, whatever you want to call it. Just that one extra day or two definitely helps. That’s the goal, right? Finish strong. Especially where we’re at. Just finish strong and hopefully we can make that playoff push.”
Wheeler was excellent Monday for six innings as the Phillies gained ground in both of their playoff chases with 25 games remaining. They trail Atlanta by 1½ games for first place in the National League East and are two games back of San Diego for the National League’s second wild card.
“We have a resilient team here,” Wheeler said. “We went down to Miami and those are the games that we’re supposed to win. We didn’t do as well as we hoped, but we came out here and played really well against the Brewers. They’re one of the top teams in the league and I think that just reassures us that we still have it and we can go out there and compete anytime, anywhere. You always have to come and play.”
But even as the postseason feels within reach, the Phils will still be cautious with Wheeler, who struck out nine and walked none on Monday.
They expect Zach Eflin to miss the rest of the season and are planning to go with a bullpen game every fifth day. Ranger Suarez is pitching through tightness in his triceps and Aaron Nola has been inconsistent. They can’t afford to lose Wheeler.
“We need his A stuff every time he goes out,” Girardi said. “And that’s not easy for any pitcher, right? But we’re doing everything we can to give him an opportunity to do that. He’s taken care of himself. He’s worked his tail end off to get to this point. He’ll continue to do that. But we just have to make sure that we don’t push him too hard.”
So they’ll monitor him this month if that’s what it takes to make sure he can make five more regular-season starts. Girardi said 100 pitches is not a “hard and fast” number but it will be a guide for Wheeler.
“That’s what baseball has used. Right? So that’s what we’re kind of using this time of year,” Girardi said. “I mean, I’m not going to take him out with two outs in the seventh inning and he’s at 99 pitches.”
Wheeler said the fatigue he has felt in recent starts is shown not by his velocity, which remains steady, but by the command that seems to slip at the end of each start. He was lifted Monday before his command had a chance to falter.
“I could look good out there, I guess, but my command is off,” Wheeler said. “I think it’s a smart move what we’re doing here. Just trying to dial it back a little bit and try to stay fresh, continue to do well.”
His only real trouble came Monday in the third when Kolten Wong and Jace Paterson both singled with two outs to bring up Christian Yelich.
Wheeler battled Yelich for eight pitches, four of which were fouled off before the at-bat ended with a groundout. A pair of two-out singles was the closest the Brewers could get to touching Wheeler. It was the type of performance the Phillies need five more times before the season is finished.
“That was a big moment to get out of that and keep that momentum rolling for us,” Wheeler said.
The Phillies scored eight runs after Wheeler exited, taking the stress off of the bullpen and proving Girardi correct for not pushing his starter. They homered six times, giving them multiple six-homer games in the same season for the first time in franchise history.
Andrew McCutchen started the eighth with a leadoff homer and Jean Segura capped the seven-run inning with his first career grand slam. The game felt close when Wheeler finished the sixth. Two innings later, it was a rout. Brad Miller homered twice and Bryce Harper and Freddy Galvis each homered. It was Galvis’ third homer in four games.
The last homer came off a position player on the mound, but the first three came off Brandon Woodruff, who entered the game with the second-best ERA (2.35) in the majors. There was nothing cheap about those ones.
“I think honestly going in with the respect, right? Respecting, hey, ‘We have our hoss on the mound and they have a guy that is in the mix for some big hardware,’” Miller said. “So I think going in with an aggressive mindset and being like, ‘Hey, this guy has got a full mix of pitches, he throws everything, but if something’s in the middle we have to be aggressive.’ He’s not a guy you can wait around on. He’s not a guy you can try to get cute with. He’s coming right at you.
“Yeah, I just think with these big hosses out there, you just have to attack them and be aggressive and try to get something in the middle of the plate, which they don’t do very often.”