Wheeler feeling better after line drive to knee, ready for unfamiliar matchup in Houston


HOUSTON -- Clinching a playoff spot in their third-to-last game of the season allowed the Phillies to save Zack Wheeler rather than use him in a must-win environment against the Astros in Games 161 or 162. 

Nearly a month later, that looks pretty important.

When Wheeler faces the Astros Saturday night in Game 2 of the World Series, it will be his first time ever facing them and the first time many of their hitters have ever seen him up close. Houston, Seattle and Minnesota are the only three teams Wheeler hasn't faced in his career, and the only three Astros with at-bats against him are designated hitter Trey Mancini and catchers Martin Maldonado and Christian Vazquez. They're 1 for 10 with a single.

The Astros got a look at all of Aaron Nola's repertoire on October 3 and it probably helped them score five runs off of him in Game 1 before the Phillies came back to win. They'll be relying mostly on video when it comes to Wheeler.

"I don't think it really differs all that much," Wheeler said Friday afternoon. "I rely a lot on J.T. (Realmuto). I ask my questions to (pitching coach Caleb Cotham) and J.T. in our pregame meetings of certain things that I like to know personally. So I'll ask those, and I'll pitch to my strengths and let J.T. kind of lead me."

Wheeler doesn't have just one strength, but it's the upper-90s fastball that makes it all sing. His velocity has been up in his playoff starts. Against the Padres in Game 5 of the NLCS Sunday, he hit 99 mph 11 times and his average fastball velocity was up from 95.9 in the regular season to 97.2.

The Phillies gave Wheeler an extra day between the NLCS and World Series for a few reasons. For one, he has a 2.02 ERA this season when given at least one extra day of rest compared to a 3.66 ERA on normal rest.

He also was hit by a line drive near the left knee Sunday against the Padres.

"It's sore, but it feels good," Wheeler said prior to Game 1 in Houston. "I think it was more of just like an in-the-moment thing where it really hurt and of course the next couple days, but it's fine now. ... It hasn't lingered."

MORE: It was a long way to the top for Wheeler — just ask his proud dad

This stage is new to Wheeler and just about every other Phillie. Many of these players had never won a postseason series prior to the last three weeks, much less advanced to the Fall Classic. 

The Astros, meanwhile, have played 88 playoff games since 2015, most in the majors. Their Game 1 starter, Justin Verlander, has pitched more than 200 innings in the postseason. Kyle Tucker, the Astros' 25-year-old right fielder who homered twice off of Nola Friday, already has 170 plate appearances in the playoffs.

Houston has a significant edge in postseason experience, but that concern has left Rob Thomson's mind this month as he's watched his team stay loose, produce and topple playoff-tested teams like the Cardinals and Braves. The Phils now have a chance to leave Houston with a 2-0 series lead.

Few Phillies have been more impactful during the playoff run than Wheeler.

"I don't worry about him," manager Rob Thomson said. "Really, there's not many guys I worry about. I mean, it was on my mind going into the playoffs. But we played so relaxed the entire playoffs that it's not on my mind anymore."

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