Quietly dominant Zack Wheeler leads ring finger-waving Phillies to wild-card win as another playoff run begins

PHILADELPHIA – Zack Wheeler started the last baseball game of 2022.

As the Phillies made their miracle run from the last wild-card team to pennant winners, Wheeler, pitching in his first postseason, was dominant. Through the first five starts of a long October, opposing batters hit just .151 off him. In 30⅓ innings, he had a 2.67 ERA.

The last game was hardly anomalous: When he left in the sixth inning, he had a 1-0 lead with a couple of runners on base. When the bullpen then surrendered a home run, he was tagged for two earned runs on three hits. Against the steamrolling Houston Astros, that was enough to put Wheeler’s team on the wrong side of the celebration for the first time all postseason.

He was one of two pitchers to start the last game of 2022 — and the only one to take a loss. A bitter end to a brilliant season.

“I don’t know why he had a bad taste,” his catcher, J.T. Realmuto, said 11 months later about the supposition that Wheeler dwells on that World Series loss. “He threw the heck out of the ball that day. He did his job.”

Now is not the time to relitigate last year, but Realmuto is right: The problem that night in Houston was that the Phillies’ formidable bats failed to show up. And an even more salient point: Zack Wheeler did his job. He pretty much always does.

Over less than a week in December 2019, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Wheeler all signed major free-agent contracts. One was for nine years at $324 million, one was for seven years at $245 million, and one was for five years at $118 million. To underpay for production is not a virtue, but those numbers are reflective of expectations at the time. The man who signed the smallest of the bunch notched a key playoff win Tuesday in Philadelphia — and the impressive part is how unremarkable that is.

The messiness of Strasburg’s maybe-retirement this season underscores how his deal (seven years, $245M) proved to be a misguided failure of epic proportions. Cole (nine years, $324M) has been the rare member of the Yankees’ crop to not disappoint in recent seasons, racking up down-ballot Cy Young votes every year since he signed in New York and likely to finally win the award this season.

But in the four seasons since those signings, no one — not Cole or Corbin Burnes or Max Scherzer or anyone who won a Cy Young award in that stretch — has been more a valuable starting pitcher, according to FanGraphs, than Wheeler.

“Wheeler’s contract was an absolute steal for the Phillies,” Realmuto said, “because he’s been so productive.”

While earning just a single All-Star appearance and a second-place and 12th-place Cy Young finish, Wheeler has amassed a 3.06 ERA and a 2.91 FIP across nearly 630 regular-season innings — plus that 2022 postseason.

And on Tuesday in Philadelphia, to kick off a new playoff run for the boisterous team that can’t say no one saw them coming this time: “I thought tonight his stuff was as good or better than any other start all year,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said.

“The first two innings,” Realmuto said, “that was as good as I’ve seen his stuff.”

Wheeler needed just 10 pitches to get through the first inning and another 10 to get through the second. Somewhere around the fourth, Rhys Hoskins — the injured heart and soul of this team — said his wife texted him to ask, “What the f*** is a sweeper?” Presumably because the broadcast wouldn’t stop marveling at the one Wheeler was dealing.

In total, Wheeler threw 100 pitches while striking out eight in 6⅔. He left with his team in the lead, and this time, the Phillies added on from there, beating the Miami Marlins 4-1 to take the first game of their best-of-three wild-card series.

Granted, that guy — one of the most consistently great pitchers of the past four years — should’ve been lights-out against a Marlins lineup that scored the fifth-fewest runs in MLB this season. But the other team is trying, too, and they’re good enough to have gotten here. The postseason is often decided by great pitchers getting knocked around — and by unassuming aces rising to the occasion.

In the regular season, Wheeler’s fastball averaged 95.8 mph. In Game 1, he dialed it up to 98.6 mph.

“I don’t know, honestly,” he said afterward about how he produced his sharpest stuff nearly 200 innings into 2023. “It’s got to be the atmosphere and the adrenaline going. As soon as I stepped foot out of the dugout to go stretch out there in the bullpen, the crowd went nuts, and I got chills.”

It’s too soon to talk about the unique decibel levels of Citizens Bank Park, the rabid fervor of unwelcoming fans that opposing players remember almost a year later. That part of the Phillies’ postseason story is just beginning. But while some wild-card series opened to historically small crowds, 45,662 phaithful showed up Tuesday, hungrier than ever after coming so close last season.

And knowing what to expect this time didn’t diminish the players’ appreciation of it. If it fueled them last year, it can do so again.

“I think it’s a better team,” Nick Castellanos — himself an impetus behind the Phillies’ rambunctious swagger — said of the 2023 club compared to 2022. “But I think more importantly, it’s a more experienced team. You can’t fake these experiences. And no matter how talented you are, you can’t replicate a moment like the postseason — playing here in the stadium, feeling the electricity of the crowd.

“So the fact that we’ve all been down this road before, and now we start this journey again, we’re very present. We’re very focused on what we need to do.”

The theme of the postseason in Philadelphia is unabashed noise. Call it boldness or brashness or obnoxious; baseball here is a spectacle. But on the first night of the 2023 playoffs, at the center of it all stood a man whose incredible success has gone far too unnoticed.

“I think he loves being under the radar,” Realmuto said of Wheeler. “Obviously, he likes to go out and dominate, but he’s not a guy that’s looking for the attention or looking for the accolades.

“He just goes out and does his job. He’s very quiet about it.”