Zack Wheeler acing tests for Phillies as their other arms focus on fixes amid playoff push

SAN DIEGO — Before the Phillies broke through a postseason drought that tormented the entire franchise, there were so many September moments that spiraled into oblivion. Two bad games became three, then six. They stepped onto the field Wednesday having allowed 48 runs in their previous seven games and they asked Zack Wheeler to stop it. They asked him to be their ace and he permitted one hit in six scoreless innings.

This is why these Phillies are confident. They are not perfect and their pitching has looked vulnerable for the first time since April, but they know the path to October now.

They hand the ball to Wheeler.

“That’s who Zack’s been for us for a few years now,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said after a 5-1 win over the Padres. “When we’ve needed him the most, he steps up in a big moment against a really good offense. He seems to have his best games in those situations. What he did for us today can’t be understated, how important that was.”

J.T. Realmuto and Matt Strahm celebrate after the Phillies took two of three from the Padres. (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

The Phillies have 23 more games to play. They are, barring an enormous collapse, firmly in the postseason. Other teams are chasing them, and that is a better feeling than the reverse.

But the Phillies (77-62) want to play that best-of-three wild-card series at Citizens Bank Park. They have a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cubs for the No. 4 seed in the National League. “They can smell it,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “And they’re going for it. They’re getting prepared and competing every day. They really want to get back there.” There is a difference in getting back this way as opposed to fighting all of the ghosts that floated through the clubhouse last September.

“It still feels like we’re chasing something,” Wheeler said. “I feel like we’re doing well, but at the same time we’ve got people nipping at our heels.”

The Phillies blitzed through August and detractors said they were peaking too soon. So, the pitching started to leak oil. It’s the Phillies, so there is always something that causes stress. Wheeler, whose 3.49 ERA ranks eighth in the NL, has a calming presence.

This time last September, he was on the injured list. He took the ball Wednesday against a dangerous Padres lineup and fired 105 pitches on four days’ rest. His fastball averaged 96 mph. San Diego hitters swung and missed at 19 of Wheeler’s pitches. He made a slight mechanical adjustment last month with his first step on the rubber.

“I think everything is kind of clicking with what we just talked about mechanically,” Wheeler said. “And when that happens it just unlocks the arm. Velo ticks up a little bit more, the ball is coming out true, it’s spinning right, and I’m not working to throw hard. It’s coming out. But other than that, I’m feeling healthy. Yeah, hopefully, I can stay right there.”

“I think this is one of the better versions of Wheeler that we’ve seen,” Realmuto said. “This is obviously the best time for this to be happening. Hopefully, he can stay healthy and keep going and keep it going into the postseason.”

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Zack Wheeler has a 2.60 ERA and a .185 batting average against in 10 starts since the All-Star break. (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

In Realmuto’s opinion, there is a clear method for everyone else on the staff to regain their footing.

“I feel like we’re in a good place,” Realmuto said. “I would like to see us attack the zone just a little bit more. I think most of our issues have come from just not throwing enough strikes. All of our guys, especially our bullpen, they have plus-plus stuff out there. If we can get them to just pound the strike zone — we did such a good job of that early on.

“I think lately, I don’t know if it’s a little wear and tear of the season or what, but that’s been our biggest problem. Getting ahead and throwing strikes. As long as we can continue to do that and build on that, we’ve got the stuff on this team to get anybody in the league out.”

Some of the pitching concerns are regular-season problems only. Michael Lorenzen, for example, will not be near the top of the depth chart once the postseason begins. He might not even be among the club’s 10 most-trusted pitchers in October. He could still have a role as a reliever; the Phillies are expected to return to a five-man rotation following Monday’s doubleheader against the Braves. Lorenzen and Cristopher Sánchez could share one rotation spot as piggyback partners. If a given matchup calls for a lefty to start, then Lorenzen would follow Sánchez from the bullpen.

In a sense, Lorenzen would occupy a similar role to what Noah Syndergaard did last October.

The Phillies wanted Lorenzen to serve as rotation insurance in August and September and, while he has not pitched well since his no-hitter on Aug. 9, he has prevented the club from having to dip into uncertain depth at Triple A. Lorenzen succeeded with Detroit because he threw strikes, but he is not a pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff. Now that he’s throwing fewer strikes, the margin for error is thin.

“I mean, I’m about as frustrated as you can get,” Lorenzen said after allowing six earned runs in a loss Tuesday. “My job is to get big-league hitters out and keep our team in a good position to win a baseball game. I feel like I’ve failed at that quite often.”

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Michael Lorenzen has allowed four earned runs or more in three of his past four starts. (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

Taijuan Walker’s biggest issue is a specific one, although critical come postseason time. He has a 6.75 ERA in the first inning. He’s surrendered the 10th-most first-inning runs among all big-league starters this season. It’s something Walker has routinely pitched through; the Phillies are 20-7 when he starts. But everything is magnified in the postseason. A bad first inning is enough to hamstring a team.

“It is important,” Thomson said. “I don’t know whether we switch up his pregame routine or what. The last couple of weeks, we’ve given up first-inning runs a lot. I don’t know what that is — a blip on the radar or something in our process that we have to change. We’ll look at it for sure.”

Aaron Nola’s current problems are familiar; he has not pitched well with runners on base. The Phillies have continued to seek solutions. Nola is obsessive about his mechanics. He studied video this week with Realmuto and pitching coach Caleb Cotham to find the smallest differences between how he’s throwing from the windup and the stretch. It’s paramount for the Phillies to find a fix. Nola’s next start is Saturday against Miami.

The bullpen, after days of heavy use, could reset with an uneventful Tuesday and Wednesday. Craig Kimbrel will go three days without throwing a pitch. Seranthony Domínguez has had three straight improved outings. José Alvarado might not be the dominant version of himself, but he’s regaining confidence in his cutter.

There is work to do. It could be worse. Wheeler is the fulcrum and, when he is the pitcher he is right now, it makes everyone else relax.

“He looks strong coming down the stretch,” Thomson said. “Just have to keep him there.”

(Top photo: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

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