Phillies’ ace hit hard early as Astros even up World Series
HOUSTON — Zack Wheeler said he is fine. His right elbow is fine. His left knee is fine.
But he struggled Saturday night in a 5-2 loss to the Astros in Game 2 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park. Wheeler has been so dominant this postseason that his troubles Saturday were jarring, especially with his velocity dropping significantly compared to his previous four postseason starts.
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“It’s a bad time for it to happen,” Wheeler said.
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Is it a concern, though? Wheeler’s next start would be Game 6 on Friday in Houston, if necessary. It could be the start that wins the Phillies the World Series, or the start that forces a decisive Game 7.
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“Yeah, I mean, it’s just late in the season,” Wheeler said. “Just go about my in-between start routine and hopefully get back out there.”
Zack Wheeler on rough start
Wheeler’s fastball averaged 96.2 mph in the first inning. It averaged 98.3 mph in the first inning in his earlier postseason starts. In the first inning of his two National League Championship Series starts against the Padres, he had 27 first-inning pitches at least 97 mph.
His fastest pitch in the first inning of Game 2 was 96.8 mph.
Overall, his fastball was down compared to his season average.
Rob Thomson on Game 2 loss
But it wasn’t just velocity. It was location. Jose Altuve jumped on a first-pitch fastball and Jeremy Peña on a first-pitch cutter for a pair of doubles to start the game and give Houston a 1-0 lead. Yordan Alvarez then hit a 1-0 slider for a double to make it 2-0. Each of those pitches was over the middle of the plate as the Astros became the third team in postseason history to start a game with three consecutive extra-base hits. It was the fifth time in Wheeler’s career and the first time since September 2020 that he allowed three-plus extra-base hits in an inning.
It was the first time it happened in the first inning.
“They were just aggressive, and I left those balls right over the heart of the plate,” Wheeler said. “That’s what a good team does with it. I tried to obviously match their aggression and get off the corners a little bit more, and they just came out swinging and the balls were right down the middle. I just need to execute a little better.”
Astros’ three-run 1st inning
Wheeler posted a 0.51 WHIP in his first four postseason starts. It was the lowest WHIP in any four-start span in postseason history. It had him on pace for the lowest WHIP in any single postseason in baseball history (minimum 25 innings pitched).
Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson (0.52) holds the current mark, which he set in 1905.
“He was just a little off,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said about Wheeler. “It was a little bit light stuff and location was a little bit off.
“Everything’s fine as far as I know.”
Phillies on Game 2 loss
Both Phillies starters were off in Houston. Aaron Nola allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings in a 6-5 comeback victory in 10 innings in Game 1. Wheeler allowed five runs (four earned) in five innings Saturday. So in a sense, the Phillies are fortunate to go home with a split. On the other hand, following their dramatic comeback victory in Game 1, they could have left Houston with a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“I think everybody deserves a poor start every once in a while,” Thomson said. “Those guys have been so good for us for so long, and I fully expect them to come back and be ready to go and pitch well for us.”
Now it’s up to Noah Syndergaard in Game 3 and Ranger Suárez in Game 4. Suárez got pushed to Game 4 because Thomson used him as a reliever in Game 1. Thomson’s aggressive usage of the bullpen worked beautifully Friday, but everybody will have to be at their best in Games 3 and 4 because both figure to be bullpen games.
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But at least the Phillies are headed home. They are looking forward to it. The crowds at Minute Maid Park were loud at times, but nothing this postseason has compared to Citizens Bank Park. Not St. Louis, Atlanta, San Diego or Houston.
“Philly is coming,” Nick Castellanos said.
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“It’s a long time coming, right?” Rhys Hoskins said. “’09, last World Series. They’ve surprised me every other time. I don’t see why that’s going to stop in the World Series.”
A crowd can only do so much, of course. The Phillies will need to hit better than they did in Game 2, although they had some close calls. They will need to pitch better and play better defense, too.
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Win three games at home and the Phillies claim the World Series. Win two and the Series returns to Houston with Wheeler on the mound in Game 6.
He seemed confident that he will bounce back.