Wheeler’s gem cuts Phillies’ magic number to one

Veteran righty’s brilliant start helps Phils cut magic number to 1 to win WC berth

October 2nd, 2022

WASHINGTON — Zack Wheeler is not there yet.

Neither are the Phillies.

But they are close now. So close, they can almost feel the champagne burning their eyes. The Phillies can clinch their first postseason berth since 2011 with a victory Monday night against the Astros in Houston, following Sunday’s rain-shortened 8-1 victory in six innings over Washington at Nationals Park. Philadelphia’s magic number to clinch the third National League Wild Card spot is one. Just one Phillies victory or one Brewers loss this week — the Phillies won their season series vs. Milwaukee, 4-2 — and Wheeler will be on the mound on Friday in Game 1 of an NL Wild Card Series, most likely in St. Louis.

“Hopefully, we get in there and get a couple of them,” Wheeler said. “That’ll set us up nice for the playoffs.”

The Phillies spent the weekend beating the Nationals three times in a four-game series that seemed to last forever because of nearly constant rain and uncertainty from Hurricane Ian. They spent the past two days watching the Brewers lose to Miami from their phones and TVs in the visitors’ clubhouse.

The Phillies became huge Marlins fans. They hung on every pitch.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “This is what you play for. We play to win and to get to the postseason and win a World Series. It’s fun to be in the race and fun to have a chance. We’ve just got to go out there and play our type of baseball and take care of business.”

Sunday was a good day for the Phillies — not only because the magic number fell to one, but because Wheeler pitched well in five scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out seven. He threw 77 pitches in his third start after missing a month recently because of tendinitis in his right elbow.

“He’s exactly what we needed him to be this time of year,” Realmuto said. “It’s definitely a big morale boost for the team knowing that if we take care of business in Houston, we’ve got him lined up for Game 1.”

Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson said Wheeler will be 100 percent full-go for that start.

Wheeler would love nothing more than that opportunity. He has made 195 starts in his career, which are the third most among active pitchers without a postseason appearance.

Wheeler has talked previously about how much he wants a postseason opportunity. He almost has it.

Just one more victory.

Or just one more Brewers loss.

“That’s where it all counts, right?” Wheeler said. “That’s where you want to get to. That’s what you battle for the whole season … to get to that point. I want to go out there and do the best I can.”

Wheeler pitched five scoreless innings in the rain, wind and cold. He knew he would have to pitch through bad weather because the Phillies, Nationals and Major League Baseball badly wanted to play the game.

If they could not play, the possibility existed they might have to return Thursday. Nobody wanted that.

So Wheeler steeled himself to pitch in terrible conditions.

“You know what’s out there,” he said. “Those guys have to play in it also. So I just threw the best I could. It was tough. Windy, cold and definitely wet. They allowed me to have a little rosin bag in the back pocket, so that’s kind of what I was doing. I had my fingers on that the whole time and just kept them dry as best as I could.”

If Sunday’s game got postponed, Wheeler would have been pushed to Monday, which would have pushed him to Game 2 of the NLWCS. It would have pushed Aaron Nola’s start from Monday to Tuesday in Houston, which would have pushed him from Game 2 to Game 3 in the NLWCS, if needed.

But everything worked out perfectly.

Nola will now have an opportunity to send the Phillies to the postseason. He has made 202 starts in his career, which are the second most among active pitchers without a postseason appearance.

“We control our own destiny, and that’s really all you can ask for,” Realmuto said. “We’re excited to go in there and play a really good ball club. It’s going to be a fun series. These games obviously mean a lot to us, so we’re just going to go out there, have fun and make the most of it.”