When the Phillies lost two heart-breaking games in Arizona that tied the NLCS at two games apiece, the momentum was clearly all in Arizona’s corner. The vibe around the team and fanbase seemed down and surely not as positive as it had just three days prior.
But all of that changed when Zack Wheeler stepped onto the bump in Game 5. Thomson handed the ball to his "stopper," and he delivered exactly what the Phillies needed — a masterful gem to put them back in the driver's seat in the series.
You could not have asked for a better start from the Phillies' ace. With the bullpen hampered after two heavy-workload games, Wheeler came out and finished seven innings with just 99 pitches. He struck out eight and allowed just one run on a home run in the seventh inning. He used a heavy dose of his four-seam fastball, which averaged 95.7 mph, right on his season average. The Phillies made it a point to have him fresh for this part of the season, and he looked as fresh and dominant as ever.
Wheeler noted in his post-game interview the need to go deep into the game and to have those innings be quality innings. He knew the bullpen was taxed, coming off a tough couple of days, and his going deep would save the team big time. His adjustments as his pitch count rose, to take advantage of the aggressiveness of the young Diamondbacks hitters by attacking them early and turning them into quick outs was a perfectly executed game plan.
The Phillies have longed for a bonafide ace they could turn to in big game situations and big moments that need a steady hand at the wheel (no pun intended), and Wheeler has been just that guy.
In the last two postseasons, Wheeler has started 10 games, pitching 61 2/3 innings. He has an astounding 2.48 ERA and a mind-blowing 0.73 WHIP. The 0.73 WHIP is the lowest in any 10-start span and the lowest career WHIP in MLB postseason history. He is quite literally one of the most dominant postseason pitchers anyone has ever seen.
Wheeler's teammates know how important he is to the Phillies
Wheeler has made the extraordinary look normal and it’s hard not to take it for granted because he has done this every time he has taken the mound. But his team realizes how important Wheeler has been to them for the last couple of years, and his four postseason starts so far this year.
Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber, who both have had historic postseasons themselves, spoke about Wheeler and how incredible he has been. In his on-field postgame interview, Schwarber said, "Whenever he [Wheeler] toes that mound, we know we have a really good chance to win."
Harper told the media that he said to Wheeler after the game, "... you're one of the best pitchers I've ever played with."
The Phillies and their fans haven’t seen big game dominance like this since Cole Hamels led the 2008 team to a World Series title. In that run, Hamels pitched five games, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. In 2023 so far, Wheeler has pitched four games, going 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA and a 0.73 WHIP.
A true ace.
With the Phillies going back to Citizens Bank Park with a 3-2 lead, needing just one more win to punch their ticket back to the World Series, they'll turn to Aaron Nola in Game 6 and, if needed, Ranger Suárez in Game 7.
That would set Wheeler up for another series-opening Game 1 start in the World Series, another game the Phillies will depend on him to again set the tone.
With potentially two more starts in this year's postseason, we have a chance to watch the magic continue for Wheeler as he looks to guide this team to a World Series title. It would be the sweetest cherry on top of one of the most dominant runs by a pitcher the MLB has ever seen.