PHILADELPHIA — Zack Wheeler wandered into the dugout at 4:53 pm ET wearing a red T-shirt, gray sweatpants and black Nike slides with white socks. He leaned on the top step. He stared at the Citizens Bank Park mound. And, for the next 32 minutes, the Phillies’ ace didn’t budge.
A reporter in a red leather band disrupts his view while taking a selfie. Cameramen walked past Phillies as they filmed him taking batting practice. A reporter asked Wheeler if he could borrow a baseball from a nearby bucket. Wheeler lurched to a halt. Howard Eskin, longtime sports-talk radio grover, reached out. They talked for almost 20 minutes. “Everything but baseball,” Eskin said later. A starter shouldn’t be interrupted on the day he pitches, but Wheeler called it before Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Marlins — a 4-1 Phillies win.
“I like going out and seeing the field,” Wheeler said. “Feeling the weather. All that stuff. Watching the guys do their job. I don’t know.”
For the most part, during those 32 minutes, Wheeler’s view of the mound was limited. But he looked straight the entire time. He does this before every start and he doesn’t know when he started doing it. Usually, he’s in street clothes, and generally, it’s less confusing. He does not visualize anything specific. He is thinking.
Bryson Stott said: “He’s about as human as you can be.
“No minute,” Bryce Harper said, “and it’s too big for Zack Wheeler.”
“I think everybody in this organization appreciates what he’s done,” manager Rob Thompson said, “because it’s unique.”
Wheeler stepped on the mound at 8:09 p.m., and he threw a 98 mph fastball. “98 was when I saw his first fastball,” Stott said. It was so electric.” The next fastball was 98.2 mph. The third was 98.6 mph. He threw two more at 98.6 and 97.9.
Then, with his sixth pitch of the night, he froze Jorge Soler with an 0-2 sweeping slider. Catcher JD Realmudo was motivated. He studied every Marlins hitter with Wheeler. Solr doesn’t take 0-2 sliders like that. Something happened.
“It’s going to be a big pitch for us,” Realmudo said.
Seven months ago, before the start of spring training, pitching coach Caleb Gotham pitched Wheeler a new idea. He liked to tinker with a sweeper — a slower version of the slider with more horizontal movement. Wheeler is skeptical by nature. He’s not tough; He is careful whom he trusts. He likes Gotham. They have developed a relationship that has helped Wheeler evolve into the 33-year-old pitcher he is today.
The cleaner was keen enough in the spring to carry it through the season. But, often, other pitches took precedence. The new toy didn’t always move the way he wanted. It looked like a ball out of his hand several times. The next step in refining the pitch in the second half of the season, Gotham said, is starting high.
“So it plays from the right to the thigh line,” Gotham said. “It’s got to take advantage of the offense. They’ve got to settle the two-seamer. When (Wheeler) has a good two-seamer, he has a lot of room to throw the sweeper in the zone.
On Tuesday night, Realmuto only needed a sweeper to find out. He started calling more. Wheeler recorded five of his eight strikeouts on the sweeper. He pitched 6 2/3 innings. He didn’t allow a Marlins runner to reach second base until the seventh inning.
“That’s what the cleaner was best at,” Wheeler said. “That was a big pitch for me tonight. I had a good feel for where to start it and what it was going to do. Whether I threw it up or down, it did the same thing every time. So it was a big pitch for me tonight.
Here’s Wheeler, in a crucial postseason game, leaning into a pitch he hadn’t thrown before this season. His fastball had extra juice, but he had other weapons. That is evolution.
“With the wheels, his fastball is so high, you have to use the slider as much as you can to keep it off the fastball,” Realmudo said. “Today, the slider was really good, and we used the slider because it was good. It wasn’t necessarily trying to cover the fastball.
There was one janitor in particular that Gotham loved. It was the sixth inning. Nick Fords, the Miami catcher, worked a full count. Wheeler missed with two sweepers earlier in the at-bat. Realmuto called for another. A walk would have made the inning hairy with the top of Miami’s lineup reeling.
Fords squashed a janitor in the strike zone.
“That’s pitching,” Gotham said. “(Fords) was probably thinking, ‘Hey, he’s going to throw me a fastball.’ And Wheels was a step up there.
Wheeler ended his conversation with Eskin at 5:25 p.m. and disappeared into the clubhouse for further preparation. At 7:33 p.m., he came out of the dugout to take the long walk to the outfield. The fans noticed him and that’s when the cheering started.
He invented another tool.
“It’s supposed to be atmospheric and get the adrenaline going,” Wheeler said. “As soon as I stepped out of the dugout to stretch in the bullpen, the crowd crushed me and I got cold feet. So that’s where it started. I think throwing baseballs kind of takes away from me. It definitely helps.”
How Wheeler dictated the game. He threw 10 pitches in the first inning, 10 pitches in the second and 12 more in the third. The Phillies squandered opportunities to take an early lead, but Wheeler didn’t let that derail his momentum.
“He solidified the game,” Gotham said. “It settled the game.”
“That’s huge,” Realmudo said. “That’s mostly huge on their opposing pitcher. That guy (Miami starter Jesus Luzardo), he’s been struggling to get through the innings and throws a lot of pitches. Then Wheels comes out and does a 10-pitch inning, and he’s back on the mound, fighting. He almost got out of the last inning. No. It feels like a consistent, consistent thing. That’s the great thing about having momentum on your side. Having a quick shutdown inning. It helps your offense a lot.
The moment never felt so big. That’s why the Phillies hope they can go two more wins than they did last season. That’s why they’re scary. They have players like Wheeler who open up more in October.
“You never take it for granted,” Wheeler said of the crowd’s support. “I caught a cold immediately. I knew it was going to be crazy, but I wasn’t expecting it. It was wonderful. They really got me going. That’s why we all love playing at home. Throughout the game — maybe a 3-2 pitch or sometimes with two strikes — the crowd goes wild, and you sit there and take it in for a second and then lock it back up and go after the guy.
October must be chaotic. Everything moved quickly around Wheeler in the hours before he dominated Tuesday night, and he never lost sight of the mound. He never once looked rushed on the mound. Phillies didn’t panic. They had Wheeler.
“That’s why,” Gotham said, “he is who he is.”
(Top photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)