HOUSTON -- Zack Wheeler has rarely, if ever, been more dialed in than he was the last time he took the mound at Minute Maid Park.
It was November 5, Game 6 of the World Series, and Wheeler had "lightning bolts coming out of his hands," as catcher J.T. Realmuto put it postgame.
Phillies fans know the story and many are still feeling the pain. Wheeler cruised through the first five innings, letting just two men on base. The Phillies took a lead on Kyle Schwarber's solo home run to start the sixth.
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Wheeler hit Martin Maldonado with a pitch to begin the bottom half, and after Jose Altuve grounded out, Jeremy Peña singled to put runners on the corners with one out.
Manager Rob Thomson, as he did all postseason, followed his gut and went to the bullpen early, pulling Wheeler at 70 pitches and bringing in reliever Jose Alvarado, who had been lights-out the two months prior and has been lights-out since. But that night, Alvarado allowed a three-run, game-winning homer to the first batter he faced, slugger Yordan Alvarez.
Instead of potentially riding a Wheeler gem to a decisive Game 7, the Phillies' season ended about an hour later.
"Feels like we were just here. I don't think I'll ever be over that, to be honest, just because I felt so good," Wheeler said Friday as the Phillies made their fourth trip to Houston in the last six months.
"That's a tricky question. Some aspects were easier to get over than others. Some things were harder to get over than others."
The night of Game 6, Wheeler admitted he was caught off guard by the pitching change.
"I'm sure he was," Thomson said moments later. "Yeah, I'm sure he was. I mean, he still had his good stuff. I just thought that that was a key moment in the game and that was a momentum swing that I thought Alvarado had a chance to strike him out."
Wheeler and Thomson did not discuss the matter that night. There was no big hash-it-out conversation during the offseason, Wheeler said: "You just move on."
New year, new team, new goals. The frustration of Game 6 in Houston six months ago could eventually dissipate if Wheeler and the Phillies make another deep playoff run and finish the job, but the reality is that those opportunities are few and far between. The 2016 Cubs thought they'd be back. The Dodgers have won 67 percent of their games the last four seasons and played in the World Series once. The Yankees have made the playoffs 10 times since beating the Phillies in the 2009 World Series but that was their last trip.
The 2023 Phillies started slowly, losing their first four games and beginning 5-10 before winning nine of 12 to move over .500 for the first time Friday night. They have a difficult upcoming schedule with road series against the Astros and Dodgers, home series vs. the Red Sox and Blue Jays, then a trip to Colorado and San Francisco, two places where they traditionally have not played well no matter how the Rockies or Giants are performing.
Wheeler has pitched well his last three times out, really having just one bad inning in Chicago two starts ago. He struck out 11 in a win over the Rockies Sunday.
"Feels like we're moving in the right direction," he said. "I feel like I've been pitching well, the numbers just don't really speak for it yet."
Saturday's start will be Wheeler's 75th as a Phillie in the regular season. He is 32-20 with a 2.93 ERA and his postseason numbers in 2022 were even better (2.78 ERA, 0.73 WHIP). He's in Year 4 of a five-year, $118 million contract that has turned out to be one the best free-agent deals in Phillies history. Who knows how much better it might look if he was extended another inning or two that November night in Houston.