Philadelphia Phillies

D-backs no match in Game 1 for Wheeler and Phils' arms: ‘I'm kind of at a loss for words'

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If this route is more difficult, well, J.T. Realmuto will gladly accept the hard way.

"Honestly, it's a little more nerve-racking when you're ahead calling pitches with the lead because you never want to give up that lead," Realmuto said after the Phillies jumped out to a five-run advantage and held on to beat the Diamondbacks, 5-3, in Game 1 of the NLCS.

"Our pitchers do a good job thriving in those situations."

The Phillies aren’t showing any nerves these days. They’ve looked like the more prepared, more confident, more talented team in all three rounds.

The Phils have played 45 innings this postseason. They've ended just two of those innings trailing, neither at home.

They homered three times off of D-backs ace Zac Gallen in the first three innings Monday — Kyle Schwarber, Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos — and maintained that lead the rest of the way, with Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado and Craig Kimbrel picking up huge outs with the tying run on base.

The Phillies' pitching staff continues to execute at an extremely high level. They held the major-league-best offense of the Braves to a .186 batting average and three home runs in four games in the NLDS. On Monday, Zack Wheeler dominated Arizona for five innings and the back end of the bullpen finished the job after Arizona's two-run sixth.

It must be a tough assignment for an opposing team knowing it has to deal with Wheeler's velocity, command and repertoire for six innings before trying to square a ball up against Dominguez' 99 mph fastball or Alvarado's absurd mix of pitches.

Alvarado, in particular, was crucial Monday night, bridging the gap from the seventh inning to the ninth with four outs on 15 pitches, three of them against the top of Arizona's lineup, Corbin Carroll, Ketel Marte and Tommy Pham.

"Tremendous, I'm kind of at a loss for words," Wheeler said of Alvarado's performance the last two seasons but especially in the playoffs. "He's a great pitcher, great stuff, great guy. He's one of my good friends on the team and it's really fun to watch him. He went down (to the minors) last year, fixed some things, came back up and has been unhittable since."

"He's a show-stopper out there for us," Realmuto added. "Any time we get in trouble with a lead — sixth, seventh, eighth, it doesn't matter when it is — he's usually coming in to face the toughest part of the lineup in the toughest spot. You can't say enough about how important he's been for us."

Phillies manager Rob Thomson has been aggressive with his pitching decisions in the playoffs two years in a row, more so than the opposing manager. The depth and stuff of his bullpen allow for it. On Monday, Wheeler had retired 15 in a row on eight strikeouts with just one ball leaving the infield when the sixth inning began. But there was some hard contact in that sixth inning. Geraldo Perdomo hit a two-run homer. Marte flied out loudly to deep center. Wheeler was at just 81 pitches after six, but that was it. He did his job, and the Phillies have all these hard-throwing, high-leverage relievers for a reason.

"He steps up," Thomson said. "His stuff was really good tonight, especially early in the game. I thought he started losing a little bit in the fifth and sixth inning, but he was dynamite early.

"It's command. It's stuff. It's power. It's competitive nature. It's everything. He is complete."

Wheeler is building a playoff resume bordering on the legendary. It will stand out even more if the Phillies can win it all this time around. He has a 2.63 ERA in nine playoff starts with the lowest WHIP (0.70) in the history of the postseason among pitchers with at least 50 innings. Mariano Rivera is second on that list.

"It's awesome. I mean, he's so much fun to watch," Harper said. "He pitches to his strengths. I just really enjoy having him as a teammate. Every fifth day we have a chance to win, and whenever you're able to do that in the postseason, it's huge.

"Like I said the other day, ace one and ace two (Aaron Nola), just because of the way that both of them kind of throw, the way they go about it. It's a pretty similar approach of how they act in the clubhouse before games and what they do. It's really cool to see it working out for Wheels, and it just doesn't surprise me either."

Wheeler threw 98-99 mph in the first inning of his NLDS start in Atlanta. He didn't reach quite that level Monday night but was 95-97 in the first inning and commanded the ball well, as he typically does. He has swing-and-miss stuff but also has the ability to induce double-digit groundballs with his sinker-slider combination. He has different methods of keeping teams off balance.

"Man, his stuff, he came out crisp, and he came out hot, and he had everything moving in a really positive direction," Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said of Wheeler.

"I just felt like we were going to weather the storm, we were going to find ourselves in this ballgame at some point. The deficit just became too large at five. They've got a very strong bullpen. We know that. But I think it was power stuff. It was just like get up and go, here it comes. Whether it was two- or four-seam, it was just really, really aggressive stuff with his fastball. He beat us with his best pitch."

As he continues to deliver on baseball's biggest stage, Wheeler is consciously trying to not take these moments for granted. He's made a habit over the years of coming out early to watch batting practice from the dugout the afternoon of his starts, a rarity for a starting pitcher. Soaking it all in is important to him. Even the longest-tenured big-leaguers spend only a fraction of their lives as active players, after all.

"Walking out to the bullpen, it's always pretty cool," he said. "Just getting out there, that first pitch, you can barely hear yourself think. You always take a step back. That's what I've learned over my career: You pay attention and enjoy these moments because they're not going to last forever. You've got to enjoy them while it lasts."

Phillies fans are doing the same. They've watched this team go from contending annually from 2007-11 to undergoing a long, arduous, sometimes fruitless rebuilding process.

Now, the Phillies are in position to make it to a second consecutive World Series if they can simply split their next six games.

"We just have to keep playing our game, worry about us, and understand they're not going to lay down," Harper said. "They're not going to do anything different. They're going to be the Arizona Diamondbacks that they have been all year, and we just have to play our game and understand that."

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