Phillies shut down Braves thanks to one of the best starts of Wheeler's career

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves

ATLANTA, GA – MAY 27: Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on May 27, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

ATLANTA -- The Phillies made it two in a row over the Braves with a 2-1 win Saturday, thanks mostly to one of the best starts of Zack Wheeler's career.

The Phillies' ace was feeling it, hitting 98 mph three times in the first inning and throwing 27 pitches at least 97. Wheeler's two-seamer velocity was up a full mph from his season average and he pounded Braves hitters with it on the inside corner. He struck out dangerous Austin Riley and Sean Murphy twice apiece and retired lefty Matt Olson all four times he faced him.

Wheeler almost didn't get a chance to face Olson that final time. He was at 97 pitches through seven innings and manager Rob Thomson told him that he had two more hitters in the eighth -- Michael Harris II and Ronald Acuña Jr. If Wheeler retired both, Thomson told him, he could stay in to face Olson. The right-hander promptly struck out Harris and Acuña and got a groundball from Olson on two pitches.

Eight innings, three hits, no runs, 12 strikeouts. Dominance.

"He had everything going," Thomson said. "The two-seamer had bite. They were chopping balls into our dugout all day long."

Wheeler benefitted from an excellent, run-saving defensive play by third baseman Alec Bohm in the fourth inning. With a man on second and one out, red-hot Marcell Ozuna laced a groundball down the third base line and Bohm dove to his right and threw him out from his knees. If Bohm doesn't glove the ball, it scores a run, puts Ozuna in scoring position and forces high-stress pitches from Wheeler, who was instead out of the inning two pitches later.

"Huge, huge. It was a great play," Thomson said. "And the presence of mind to stay on the ground and skip it over to first base because he knew he had time, just a great play. In the last year, he's grown so much -- physically, mentally, emotionally. It's just fantastic."

The Braves have won five straight NL East titles and have the league's best offense so far in 2023. Yet Wheeler, in 11 starts against the Braves as a member of the Phillies, is 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA.

He's a big-game pitcher who seems to get up for this division rival.

"They're an aggressive team so you've just got to play into that," he said. "I throw a lot of strikes and that kind of works hand in hand with them being aggressive. But at the same time, if you don't have your command, they'll make you pay for it. You've got to be very diligent out there.

"I know this lineup pretty well. They've got a few new guys but I know these guys pretty well, where to go at certain times."

The Phils are 25-27 and look to win the four-game series against first-place Atlanta on Sunday Night Baseball. Wheeler's long outing was especially important with Dylan Covey making his first start as a Phillie in the finale.

The Braves' Charlie Morton was also locked in early and maxed out at 98 mph, but the Phillies were able to get to him in the fifth inning with production from the bottom of the order. Brandon Marsh began the frame with a single and Kody Clemens doubled to put two in scoring position. Bryson Stott followed with a sacrifice fly and Trea Turner doubled in a run for the second straight game.

Clemens continues to produce in a part-time role. He has hit .333 over his last 12 starts with four home runs, three doubles and 10 RBI. He's essentially claimed the role Darick Hall began the season with, starting at first base against right-handed pitchers. Hall will begin a rehab assignment Tuesday in Clearwater but he will need to hit his way back to the bigs given the amount of time he's missed with a sprained thumb and the success Clemens has had.

Turner might finally be in the beginning stages of a hot streak. He's driven in a run in back-to-back games for the first time all season and has an extra-base hit in three of his last four games.

"I'm getting there, getting closer," Turner said. "The stats aren't anything too crazy but the quality of the at-bats are getting better, putting the ball in play, kinda doing what I want. I feel much better, more confident. 

"I really liked today. I made another little adjustment and felt really good, the strikeouts are going down. Just trying to keep being consistent. All good signs. I've just got to get hot."

Craig Kimbrel closed out the win for save No. 401, the day after becoming the eighth member of the 400-save club. He joked after his big moment Friday night that he still had to go work out for an hour because there was a game to win the next day. Win they did. Kimbrel allowed a one-out solo homer to Sean Murphy but retired Ozuna and Eddie Rosario to end the game, giving the Phillies a chance to win their first NL East series of 2023.

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