Zack Wheeler has not looked like Zack Wheeler of late.
In his first two outings of the regular season, he was unable to pitch past the fifth inning. His velocity was down, which isn’t ideal for a power pitcher who relies primarily on his fastball. The Zack Wheeler that fans are used to seeing can hit 98 mph, 99 mph, or even 100 mph, and do it with control. He can pitch well — and deep — into games. Those two outings were not the Zack Wheeler fans were used to seeing.
JT Realmuto was not surprised to see the right-handed pitcher off to a slower start. The Phillies catcher caught Wheeler during the lockout in Clearwater, Fla., and knew Wheeler was struggling with a sore shoulder.
“We were in the street, in tennis shoes, playing catch in front of my house,” Realmuto said. “I knew he wasn’t able to build up properly. To be honest, the drop in velocity early on wasn’t really surprising to me. I know as the season goes on, he’s going to have his velocity.
“I can’t say enough how much he wasn’t prepared coming into spring training as he normally would be, just because of that sore shoulder and the lockout. He wasn’t able to get long toss in the same, he wasn’t able to get bullpens in the same. So, yeah, I’m not too surprised about it.”
After a shortened spring training, that was shortened even more after he had a bout with the flu, Wheeler is still in the process of ramping up. But Saturday would have been his fifth spring training start — which means that we should be seeing something close to the normal Zack Wheeler, soon. On Saturday, in the Phillies’ 5-3 loss to the Brewers, we did.
Wheeler averaged 95.9 mph on the radar gun, after averaging 94.5 mph in his start last week. He mostly cruised through his first four innings of work, allowing two hits and no runs with three strikeouts over that span.
In the fifth inning, he ran into some trouble, but it wasn’t all on him. Kyle Schwarber made a throw from left field that fell way short, bouncing slowly to Realmuto after Lorenzo Cain had reached home plate, and Willy Adames stole home as Christian Yelich stole second base.
After the game, Wheeler mentioned an adjustment he’d made in a bullpen session that clicked for him in Saturday’s game. He said in his previous outings, he was leaning over his toe too much, rather than staying flat-footed and keeping his body upright, so he tried to correct that on Saturday. Everything felt more crisp, and he saw an immediate improvement in his command (which Realmuto noticed as well).
“He had more command of all of his pitches,” Realmuto said. “I thought his slider was the best I’ve seen it since last year. So whatever adjustment he made, it definitely worked. His slider was a smaller, tighter, cutter-ish type slider, which for him, plays better to righties. When it gets a little bigger and slower, it’s not as good of a pitch for him, so it just looked a little tighter today.”
For the most part, Wheeler was not allowing hard contact. He didn’t allow any walks, and was able to make it deeper into his start on Saturday than he has in his first two outings. His final stat line: 5 innings, 7 hits, 4 earned runs, and 5 strikeouts. It’s not the Zack Wheeler fans are used to seeing, but he’s getting close.
“It’s frustrating to me, because it is the season, and it does matter, and you just want to go out there and do your best,” Wheeler said. “But I’m still building up, getting my legs under me. Each outing, just trying to take another step forward, and trying to get better.”
The Phillies put some runs on the board early on Saturday, but not enough to account for the Brewers’ four-run fifth inning. A Nick Castellanos RBI double scored Bryce Harper in the first inning, and a Jean Segura RBI single and a Castellanos sacrifice fly gave the Phillies a 3-0 lead entering the fourth inning.
But the Phillies weren’t able to build any momentum past the fourth, and certainly weren’t able to build any in the eighth and ninth innings, when they were facing Devin Williams and Josh Hader.
“We’ve come back in other back ends of the bullpen, and I think we have a good hitting club,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “But, yeah, they’re good back there.”
The Phillies’ offense finished its night with seven hits and just one walk.