Phillies Analysis

Zack Wheeler leads the way in win over Rangers, Phillies collect 7th sweep of season

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It was just another Throwback Thursday down at One Phillies Way, with the players and staff wearing the retro powder blue unis from the 1970s and 1980s.

And it was just another throwback pitching performance from the team with baseball’s best record and, not so coincidentally, the lowest rotation’s earned run average – 2.64 – in Rob Manfred’s neatly-ordered realm.

Zack Wheeler pitched seven innings in the Phillies sixth straight win, 5-2, completing the sweep of the Rangers before a sellout afternoon crowd at Citizens Bank Park. Phillies starting pitchers have gone at least seven innings 18 times this season. What used to be expected is now considered exceptional.

To paraphrase the Montell Jordan song that was popular in the mid-1990s, this is how they used to do it. And Wheeler, who has pitched seven or more innings in five of his 11 starts this season, thinks the Phils could be on the vanguard of a back-to-the-future trend, that they’re proving that it’s possibles to pitch deep into games and be successful.

“I think we all have that mentality of going seven-plus every time,” he said. “If you don’t, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But we have goals every time out and that’s one of them.

“I think it’s a new school/old school thing. Back in the day you went seven to nine innings and it was a great start. I came up, I guess, at the end of that time and I guess that’s just my mentality. I don’t know if me doing that and saying that has rubbed off on other guys. I’m sure it’s just a pride thing, also. It’s saving our bullpen for later in the season when it really counts. It’s just a cool thing to do, to go deep in the game and pitch well at the same time.”

Wheeler, Ranger Suarez and Aaron Nola all rank in the MLB Top 10 in innings pitched.

Said manager Rob Thomson: “I think that’s a function of the starters. These guys are really pitching well, and they’re efficient.”

Wheeler allowed two earned runs on five hits and two walks Thursday. He’s 6-3 with a 2.53 ERA. Which is a big reason why the Phillies are off to an historically hot start.

They have the best record in baseball at 37-14. They’ve not only won a lot but they’ve won in a lot of different ways. When they hit a lot of home runs and when the lineup passes the baton. When shortstop Trea Turner is on an epic tear and when he’s on the injured list. When they take the early lead and when they take control by putting up a big crooked number in the fourth, fifth or later. Fifteen times on comebacks, 15 times by five or more runs, 10 times by just one. Four in extra innings, three on walkoffs.

They won Thursday in part because Edmundo Sosa, White Merrifield and Cristian Pache all contributed from the bottom of the batting order, because Nick Castellanos is showing signs of coming off out his season-long slump that included a home run in the finale of the homestand and because J.T. Realmuto homered to extend his hitting streak to 13 games, tying his career high.

But with all due respect to an offense that continues to lead the world in runs scored and a bullpen whose effectiveness is sometimes underrated, the through line in this embarrassment of riches has been the starting pitching.

Before the 2020 season, the Yankees signed free agent pitcher Gerrit Cole to a 9-year, $324 million free agent contract. And they certainly have had no reason to regret that decision. Former Phillies general manager Matt Klentak raised some eyebrows when he inked Wheeler to a 5-year, $118 million deal.

Since then, Wheeler has 72 quality starts, one more than Cole.

He probably would have worked another inning but, with two outs and nobody on in the seventh, he quickly gave up three hits and a walk. That convinced Thomson to bring Jose Alvarado in to pitch the eighth and Jeff Hoffman to get the save in the ninth.

The manager keeps reminding everybody that the season is still young, that the Phillies have accomplished nothing yet. To underscore that he could point out that the Phillies had three starting pitchers (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels) finish in the top five of the 2011 Cy Young voting. And were still eliminated by the Giants in the first round of the playoffs.

Still, for a team that has adopted World Series Or Bust as its unofficial motto, the depth and quality of the rotation as the season approaches the one-third mark has been remarkable.

Great starting pitching always gives you a chance to win. Fads and trends come and go, but that’s been a foundational baseball truth from the start.

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