Zack Wheeler offers a lesson in speeding up baseball

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How do you speed up baseball?

This is how.

Hand the ball to Zack Wheeler for his first start of the season. Have him hit 99 mph on the radar gun in the first inning. Have him retire 17 in a row after allowing a hit in the second inning. Have him throw 90 pitches in seven innings. Make 62 of them strikes. Oh, yeah, and no walks. And 10 strikeouts.

Phillies win, 4-0.

In two hours, 30 minutes.

Alleluia!

“I don’t know if you can say enough great things about what he did today,” manager Joe Girardi said after Wheeler dominated the Atlanta Braves on Saturday afternoon.

“You looked up and we were almost through five innings in an hour.”

That hit that Wheeler allowed in the second inning. It was a single up the middle by Travis d’Arnaud.

It was also the only hit that Phillies pitching allowed on the day against a lineup that features last year’s NL MVP (Freddie Freeman) and home run/RBI champ (Marcell Ozuna). Archie Bradley and Hector Neris closed out the shutout. Neris struck out the side in the ninth. Phillies pitching finished the day with 14 strikeouts and no walks.

The Phils are off to a 2-0 start. They have held the three-time defending NL East champion Braves to two runs in the two games.

It’s early, very early. But you’ll take it.

“You score seven runs in two games, you don’t necessarily expect to win both of them,” Girardi said. “But when you have good pitching, you have a chance every day you go out there. That’s the bottom line. I like our pitching. I like the arms we have. I like the different looks we have in our bullpen. There’s power, there’s finesse, there’s changeups, there’s splits, there’s a dominant lefty.”

Not only was Wheeler dominant on the mound, he was a difference-maker at the plate

All four of the Phillies’ runs came with two outs. Wheeler drove in two of them. He singled home the first run of the game against Charlie Morton in the fifth and doubled home another run in the sixth.

Not bad for a guy who had not had a regular-season at-bat since September 26, 2019. Remember, National League pitchers did not hit last season. Wheeler had just one at-bat in Florida this spring.

“Easy game, right?” said Rhys Hoskins, who knocked in the Phillies’ other two runs with a fifth-inning double. “Shoot, it’s hard to beat a guy like that on the mound if he’s also beating you at the plate.”

Did Wheeler surprise himself with how well he swung the bat?

“No,” He said. “Just because we’re hitting a lot in the cage. As a pitcher, you’re going to see a fastball. You’ve just got to be ready to hit it. You take pride in it. If you’re going up there, you might as well try. I take pride in it. It’s just trying to move the runners and keep the inning going.”

Wheeler, 30, signed a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies before the 2020 season. He struck out just 6.7 batters per nine innings last year, but that didn’t mean his pitches lacked electricity. Quite the contrary. He simply prioritized early contact, strike-throwing, movement down in the zone and ground balls above strikeouts and ended up having a strong season, recording a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts.

So, of course, Wheeler goes out and strikes out 10 in his first start of the new season. His 90th and final pitch of the game was a 97-mph heater and a strikeout of Ozuna.

“Honestly, it’s just the way things fell,” Wheeler said of the big strikeout total. “The first inning or two, I really wasn’t getting ahead of guys like I wanted to. And then as the game went on, I did a little better job at that. When you’ve got everything working — fastball, change, curve, slider — and you’re placing it where you want to, it makes it a lot easier. You’ve got J.T. (Realmuto) back there and I really wasn’t second-guessing him at all today. That makes it a lot easier also.”

The Phillies got 6⅔ innings of two-run ball from starter Aaron Nola in the season opener and seven shutout innings from Wheeler in Game 2. The bar has been set high for Zach Eflin as he makes his first start of the season Sunday as the Phils go for a season-opening sweep.

“Pitching is where it’s at,” Girardi said. “You look at teams that win and they have good pitching.”

So far, so good for the 2021 Phillies.

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