Phillies Playoffs

Zack Wheeler becoming an October legend before our very eyes

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Some remarkable comments from Zack Wheeler and his teammates after the Phillies’ ace turned in another outstanding performance in game five.

PHOENIX — It's become difficult to find new ways to describe Zack Wheeler's postseason dominance, but what he did for the Phillies Saturday night in Game 5 of the NLCS might have been the most important thing he's done to this point in his career.

The Phillies used their bullpen for 26 outs in Games 3 and 4, both losses in Arizona. Had Wheeler gone five innings in Game 5, had he lacked command, the Phillies would have been in a compromised position, potentially coming home needing to win two in a row to stave off elimination.

Craig Kimbrel was down after throwing 45 pitches the last two nights. So was Orion Kerkering after pitching back-to-back nights for the first time in his life. Jose Alvarado was available, but the Phillies badly wanted to stay away from him because it would have been a third straight day and the first appearance covered two innings.

Wheeler didn't go five innings. He didn't lack command. He went seven, not giving up a run until his final frame. He struck out eight. He walked one. He entered having allowed the fewest baserunners per inning of any pitcher in MLB playoff history and that didn't change.

Wheeler has made 10 playoff starts. His opponents have hit .164/.211/.256. That's 232 plate appearances of Wheeler turning some of baseball's best hitters into the equivalent of a pitcher.

The Phillies needed him more than ever on Saturday night and he answered the call again in a 6-1 win that put them up 3-2 in the NLCS.

"You could tell there was a lot of weight on his shoulders today, but every time that happens, he seems to step up for us and pitch well," catcher J.T. Realmuto said.

"You could just see it from pitch one, he was trying to attack the strike zone. He was focused all day long in his pregame routine, our pitchers' meeting, he was locked in. A lot of times, Wheels in the pitchers' meetings, it's like, 'Is he even listening to us right now?'

"He was more interested in how do we attack this guy, how do we get this guy out the second time through. He was engaged."

The only pitcher ever with a playoff ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate that matches Wheeler's in as many innings is Bob Gibson. Seriously.

The Phillies would not be here without him. They wouldn't have been in the 2022 World Series without him. Wheeler has outproduced Gerrit Cole, who signed for nearly three times as much money the same offseason. The Cy Young-winners this year might be Cole and either Spencer Strider or Zac Gallen. When you factor in not just Wheeler's production but the timing of it, he might be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball right now.

"I told him after the game, I was like, 'You're one of the best pitchers I've ever played with, man,'" Bryce Harper said. "I've played with a lot of good ones, and he's easily top three.

"He just has all the confidence in his ability to throw any pitch in any count. He's not scared. As a baseball player watching that, you're watching just an incredible moment every time he goes out there.

"That's why he is here. That's why he has the opportunity to do this every fifth day. I just love seeing him do it. It's incredible what he does."

The NLCS now shifts back to Philadelphia for Game 6 Monday night and Game 7 (if necessary) on Tuesday. Aaron Nola will pitch Game 6. Ranger Suarez would start Game 7. Suarez spent Saturday night in the bullpen and would have been used if the game was closer or Wheeler's night was shorter.

Add that to the list of reasons why Wheeler's start was so pivotal. It's at least one fewer inning on Suarez' arm and one fewer look the Diamondbacks' lineup had at a pitcher they might see again.

"With the status that our bullpen was in and what they went through the last couple days, Wheels took it upon himself to pitch deep into the game," Realmuto said.

"It was big to kind of steal a little momentum back from those guys. We saw how they responded after we beat them two games at home, they came back and punched us right in the mouth. It's exciting to get back home, but we've got to put our working hats on. They're going to come to play, so hoping the crowd can get behind us and lift us up some more."

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