Phillies earn four-game sweep of Giants as Zack Wheeler strikes out 11

Philadelphia Phillies

Zack Wheeler made his point.

Wheeler doesn’t like extra rest between starts when it’s avoidable. He finds it more inconvenient than restorative. It disrupts his routine. So, when the Phillies pushed back his turn on the mound by one day last week, the ace didn’t feel sharp and said as much after the game.

Back on his regular turn Monday, Wheeler cranked up his fastball and dominated for seven innings in a 6-1 victory over the Giants that completed a four-game sweep, gave the Phillies their sixth victory in a row, and reduced his ERA to 1.64.

You read that right. 1.64.

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“Fastball was good. I felt like it was true,” Wheeler said after ceding one unearned run on four hits and a walk and getting 13 — count ‘em, 13! — swings-and-misses on his heater, the second-highest total of his career. “It’s my bread and butter, throwing the four-seam up in the zone.”

The Phillies won for the 17th time in 20 games and improved their best-in-the-majors record to 25-11. They reached 25 wins in 36 or fewer games for the third time in their 142-season history, following the 1993 (25-10) and 1976 (25-9) clubs, both of which went to the playoffs.

Bryce Harper took care of the offense. Again. He followed his three-run homer on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball by welcoming Scranton native and Lehigh University product Mason Black to the majors with a three-run shot in a four-run fifth inning that broke open the game.

But starting pitching has been the common denominator in the Phillies’ torrid start, with everyone else following the lead of one of the sport’s elite starters.

Upon arriving in spring training, Wheeler actually admitted he wants to win the Cy Young Award. He even developed a splitter to help with getting out left-handed hitters. He sprinkled in his new pitch, along with his sweeper and curveball, in seven innings against the Giants.

Mostly, though, Wheeler ratcheted up his fastball to 96.2 mph and let it rip. At one point, he struck out four batters in a row and five of six. He finished with 11 strikeouts and even appeared to crack a smile as he left the field after Tyler Fitzgerald lined his 102nd pitch to second base before 33,408 paying customers at a rare Monday matinee.

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“His fastball, he lost a little bit of velocity at the end there, but the first five innings, six innings, it had life to it,” manager Rob Thomson said. “I thought he was really good.”

Said Harper: “Wheels went out and did what Zack kind of does every time he goes out there. It was a lot of fun to watch.”

Indeed, Wheeler has gone at least five innings in each of his eight starts and completed six innings or more in all but two. He has allowed 0, 1, 3, 4, 0, 0, 1, and 0 earned runs. He has the lowest ERA among qualified National League pitchers and the fourth-lowest overall.

Wheeler benefited from solid defense in the first inning. Bryson Stott, back at shortstop for the first time since Game 6 of the 2022 World Series, made a diving stop up the middle and a flip to second base to start an inning-ending double play.

Just like riding a bike.

From there, Wheeler needed no assistance. He didn’t allow another hit until Wilmer Flores’ two-out double in the fourth inning. The only run against him came in the sixth when Thairo Estrada reached on Stott’s throwing error and later scored on Flores’ sacrifice fly to center field.

“He’s always had plus stuff. I just feel like he’s more of a pitcher now than he was in the past,” J.T. Realmuto said of Wheeler. “He used to be more of a thrower and kind of challenged you in the middle of the zone and came at you with two or three pitches. Now, he’s got five or six pitches. He can toy with hitters more than he used to be able to.”

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In this case, there was no toying. Armed with his best fastball, Wheeler simply overpowered the Giants.

“You can have all the off-speed you want, but you’ve got to be able to throw your fastball with command and confidence,” Wheeler said. “I’m just doing the same thing as I’ve been doing. Just getting the results.”

Black, who grew up a Phillies fan, had a cheering section of family and friends behind the third-base dugout. For a while, he gave them reason to get loud, chewing through the order once and even recording back-to-back strikeouts of Realmuto and Harper in the first inning.

But the Giants didn’t let Black go beyond the fifth inning in triple A. His pitch counts in six starts: 68, 70, 68, 56, 71, and 69. It was unsurprising, then, that the Phillies got to him in the middle innings, punctuated when Harper banged a hanging slider — Black’s 74th pitch — the opposite way to left field.

“Being able to pitch in Citizens Bank Park for his major league debut against the team he grew up rooting for, he has to feel good,” Harper said. “He has to feel good about his first four innings. I thought he threw really good ball his first four innings. From an individual standpoint, I hope he enjoyed the day.”

The Phillies are enjoying their best start in more than 30 years.

“We’re not really worrying about our numbers as individuals,” Harper said. “We’re just trying to go out and win the games that we need to, no matter who comes through at the right time each night. I think we’re doing a really good job of just going out there and capitalizing. Just really good as a team.”

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