Zack Wheeler shuts down Nationals’ offense as Phillies win series opener

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies have not gotten blown out a lot this season. It isn’t a fluke. They score early, and once they do, their pitching tends to care of the rest.

It’s a formula that has worked for them most of the time, and worked again on Friday night, in a 4-2 win over the Nationals. According to NBC Sports Philadelphia, the Phillies have now scored first 32 times out of their 46 games. They’ve lost only one game when they are leading through six innings.

Combine that with a rotation-wide ERA of 2.63 ERA, and you’re looking at an uphill battle.

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“[Scoring first] just puts people on their heels right away,” said manager Rob Thomson. “And as you get later into the game, I think offenses start to get a little antsy. Start swinging early, trying to do too much. So it’s always good to get out in front early and then shut them down.”

This doesn’t mean that the Phillies are swinging for the fences in the first few innings. As Thomson pointed out Friday, it’s likely a byproduct of their approach. They worked Nationals starter Jake Irvin to 72 pitches through his first three innings. It resulted in one walk, but it gave the Phillies a good look at the right-handed pitcher and took him out of the game earlier.

“We’re seeing pitches,” Thomson said. “We’re making the guy work. You get over 15 pitches in an inning and the stuff tends to come down a little bit. When we do that, typically we barrel up some balls.”

By the end of the third inning, the Phillies had scored four runs on five hits. They didn’t record a run or a hit through the rest of the game, but that didn’t matter, given how starter Zack Wheeler was pitching.

He looked a lot more like himself. In Wheeler’s last start, on May 12 in Miami, he allowed more walks and runs than he had strikeouts. On Friday, he felt more in rhythm. He struggled with his command a bit — allowing three walks — but settled down as the game went on.

Wheeler said afterward that he made a mechanical adjustment after the second inning that helped his command.

“It was simple,” he said. “[It was] just to stay over myself a little bit more, and [get] a tiny bit lower.”

Wheeler nearly hit 98 mph in the first inning and averaged 96.3 mph on his four-seam fastball — a 1.7 mph jump from his yearly average on that pitch. He got 17 swings and misses, 10 of which came on that four-seam fastball. He wasn’t sure why he was throwing harder, but appreciated the uptick in velocity.

“I mean, anytime you throw a little harder, maybe it’s a foul ball instead of a hard hit or swing and miss instead of a foul ball,” Wheeler said. “So throwing harder definitely helps. But it’s not everything, obviously.”

His 7⅓ innings tied his longest outing of the season. The length from Wheeler came at the perfect time for manager Thomson. The Phillies (32-14) only got 3⅓ innings from Taijuan Walker against the Mets the night before after a hard-hit single deflected off of Walker’s left foot. That game went 11 innings, and the Phillies had to use six relievers.

But thanks to Wheeler, Thomson only had to use two relievers — José Alvarado and Jeff Hoffman — on Friday night.

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“[It was] huge,” Thomson said of Wheeler’s outing. “I mean, it really was, because we were thin. We could’ve gotten through today, but tomorrow we would’ve been really thin if he had to go to a bunch of guys today.”

Like Wheeler, Alvarado and Hoffman needed a bounce-back outing. Alvarado was charged with loss on Thursday, and Hoffman had a blown save. But they delivered about 24 hours later against the Nationals (20-23).

Alvarado induced a pop out from CJ Abrams and a fly out from Rosario to end the eighth inning. Hoffman allowed a double to Joey Gallo but retired his other three batters on two pop-ups and a fly out.

After four chaotic games against the Mets, the Phillies will take a relatively unexciting win. And wins typically come when they stick to that formula.

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