If timing is everything in life, Zack Wheeler’s newborn son is off to a flying start.
Wheeler’s wife, Dominique, gave birth to the couple’s first child on Monday night, according to Phillies manager Joe Girardi. Wheeler is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Thursday and make his first start of the season, right on schedule, on Saturday, against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies were unsure of Wheeler’s status for the beginning of the season. With the right-hander now set to make his full slate of starts, Girardi said the rotation is nearly set, pending the outcome of Zach Eflin’s four-inning, 60-pitch simulated game on Thursday.
Vince Velasquez won the competition against Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation and will make his season debut on Sunday against the Marlins. Jake Arrieta, who threw 88 pitches in five innings of an intrasquad game Wednesday, will start Monday night at home against the New York Yankees.
If Eflin is ready for the season, he figures to start Tuesday night. He missed several days early in camp because of back spasms. If Eflin needs additional time, Pivetta could take his turn in the rotation. Otherwise, Pivetta figures to go to the bullpen, likely as a multi-inning reliever.
Velasquez cemented his spot with a solid outing Monday night at Yankee Stadium. He demonstrated trust in his off-speed pitches and even developed a cutter during baseball’s three-month hiatus.
“We just really liked the improvement that Vince made between the first spring training and the second spring training,” Girardi said.
Said Arrieta: “I think we’re going to see a much different Vinny this year than we have in the past, and that’s a huge weapon for us. He’s extremely focused.”
Waiting in the wings is top-prospect Spencer Howard, who was assigned to the Phillies’ alternate training site in Allentown on Tuesday night. Howard impressed Girardi and pitching coach Bryan Price during training camp. The Phillies expect he will make his major-league debut this season, perhaps sooner than later.
With the season set to open Thursday night, Major League Baseball and the Players Association are reportedly having last-minute discussions about expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to 16.
Girardi’s reaction: Bring it on.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Girardi said. “I think what everybody always talks about, if you’re going to have playoffs and if you’re going to have wild-card teams, you want somewhat of a balanced schedule. But that’s not going to happen this year. I’m all for expanding the playoffs just because of that reason.”
The regionally based schedule means the Phillies will play 40 games against NL East rivals and 20 against American League East clubs. It’s a tough schedule, filled with steady doses of the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, and the Yankees.
“I think the more playoff baseball that we can have for our fans, especially in a year like this, the more excitement we provide for our fans, and it’s better for the game,” Girardi said. “One thing I think brings a ton of excitement are the wild-card games. I’m not so sure we couldn’t have more of those.”
Arrieta doesn’t expect Phillies players to kneel during the national anthem Friday night, but indicated that the club has “certain things that we’re going to do” to express the need for societal reforms in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.
“We want to do what we can to show that we’re unified and we’re all together on many fronts, whether it’s the fight against COVID or embracing the Black Lives Matter movement,” Arrieta said, “and showing that we’re going to do what we can as a country to make sure that there’s change moving forward.”
According to reports, MLB will give players on all 30 teams the option of wearing a patch with “Black Lives Matter” or “United For Change” on a jersey sleeve on opening day. Teams will also hold pregame ceremonies in which each team will hold a black ribbon in honor of Floyd. Phillies left fielder Andrew McCutchen reportedly helped to coordinate the effort.
MLB will also allow players to put messages for social justice on their cleats. Players will also be able to wear a Black Lives Matter batting practice T-shirt.
Veteran reliever Tommy Hunter threw a scoreless inning Wednesday, in his first intrasquad game action. Hunter was a late arrival to camp after being sick with COVID-19. ... Arrieta gave up three runs in the first inning, then settled down in his final tune-up before the season. ... Utility infielder Phil Gosselin, a Malvern Prep product, picked up two more hits, giving him nine in the last five games. ... The Phillies have to submit their 30-man opening-night roster by noon Thursday.