When Zack Wheeler takes the mound to face the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park Tuesday in Game 1 of the wild-card series, he'll be starting a playoff game in front of his home fans for just the second time in his nine-year career.
Wheeler, who was electric throughout last year's deep Phillies playoff run, made five of his six starts on the road, the lone home outing coming in the NLCS Game 5 clincher against the Padres.
The 33-year-old just wrapped up the fourth regular season of his five-year, $118 million contract. Throughout 2023, Phillies fans have debated Aaron Nola's next contract. In 2024, Wheeler will go through a walk year of his own, if he isn't extended beforehand.
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Wheeler has been everything the Phillies could have dreamed of since a Matt Klentak-led front office signed him in the offseason before 2019. Most thought the Phils were bringing in a No. 2 starter who had the potential to be more. What Wheeler has been is a bona fide ace, one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball since the date of his signing. If you trust metrics like Wins Above Replacement, Wheeler leads all major-league pitchers since joining the Phillies.
It's turned out to be one of the best free-agent signings in the history of Philadelphia sports, right up alongside guys like Malcolm Jenkins and Nick Foles, and certainly one of the best values. Gerrit Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees and Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Nationals the same offseason Wheeler joined the Phillies. Strasburg's contract was worth more than twice as much as Wheeler's, and Cole's was worth nearly three times. Strasburg barely pitched after signing his deal and retired this year. Wheeler's results (3.06 ERA) have equaled Cole's (3.08).
"It flew by so far," Wheeler said of his time with the Phillies. "I'm looking forward to the playoffs and hopefully more to come.
"Just got to keep your emotions in check, don't get too pumped up. You're going to have a lot of adrenaline but keep that in check and just pitch normal."
Wheeler's normal has been as good as anyone's, really. His ERA as a Phillie has been nearly 40% better than the league average. He's made 101 starts and 64 have been quality starts. The Phillies have the winning percentage of a 95-win team behind him.
He was even better last year in the postseason. Wheeler pitched into the seventh inning, allowed two hits and no runs in Game 1 of the 2022 wild-card series in St. Louis. He followed with a quality start in Atlanta in the NLDS. He held the Padres to one hit over seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLCS, then gave up two runs over six innings five days later.
Wheeler did lose both of his starts in the World Series, Games 2 and 6. The Astros jumped him for three runs in the first inning in Game 2, but he was locked in for Game 6 with perhaps the best velocity and finish to his pitches he's shown as a Phillie.
Catcher J.T. Realmuto remarked after the game, which the Phillies lost to end the World Series, that Wheeler had "lightning bolts coming out of his hands." Despite that, Wheeler was pulled after 5⅓ innings so lefty reliever Jose Alvarado could match up with lefty slugger Yordan Alvarez, who hit a game-deciding three-run homer. Wheeler had allowed two hits over five scoreless innings to begin the night.
"I don't think I'll ever be over that, to be honest, just because I felt so good," Wheeler said of the quick hook back in April when the Phillies returned to Houston. "Some aspects were easier to get over than others. Some things were harder to get over than others."
He has a chance to cleanse his palate this October if the Phillies can make another push.
"I don't think anything's different," he said. "I felt healthy last year, I feel healthy this year. Just looking forward to pitching in playoff games, pitching in front of these fans."
Since joining the Phillies, Wheeler has faced the Marlins eight times and has a 3.64 ERA with 49 strikeouts in 47 innings. He's allowed just five home runs, three this year to Josh Bell, Jazz Chisholm and the since-traded Garrett Cooper.
He matched up with Miami three times in 2023 and pitched six innings each time, allowing one, two and three runs with 23 strikeouts and four walks. The Phillies have exactly who they want on the mound to begin the postseason.