PHILADELPHIA — Conditions at Citizens Bank Park Saturday afternoon were far from ideal for baseball.
There were sustained winds of around 20 mph – and almost as strong gusts – while a steady fog fell intermittently throughout the game. But that rain stopped long enough for the Phillies to pull out a 7-5 win over the Mets, setting up a likely scenario for Sunday’s series finale.
Bryce Harper rocketed through the blustery wind for his 20th goal of the season, and Alec Bohm later added his 19th on a day when any ball struck in the air seemed to turn into an adventure.
But avoiding a postponement was pivotal not only to getting closer to securing a postseason spot, but also to what it meant for Zach Wheeler’s schedule. Making his start as scheduled on Saturday, Wheeler will then pitch in regular relief Thursday against the Pirates, setting him up to start Game 1 of a potential NL Wild Card Series — also in regular relief.
“Yeah, I mean it’s always good to get into games,” head coach Rob Thompson said. “But it helps us a little bit. We can always move things around, but what we played today definitely helped us.”
Postponing Wheeler’s start until Sunday would have left the Phillies with a difficult decision to make. Assuming they want to use Wheeler in Game 1, they would have to either skip that role to keep him on schedule for Thursday and the subsequent postseason opener, use him on Sunday and then give him an extended period of rest before Game 1, or start running him. on Sunday and Thursday before returning him to short rest for the first match.
“Any time you can set things up to motivate your best players, that’s always a good thing,” Harper said. “Especially in a three-way match [series] “Against whoever it’s going to be, any time you can have your No. 1 guy leave, that’s huge for us.”
Obviously, any of these alternatives would have been less favorable — especially when considering what Wheeler did in regular relief this season.
Entering Saturday, Wheeler was 5-1 with a 1.86 ERA and 0.86 WHIP in nine starts on four days off this season. He was 7-5 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 21 starts after five or more days off.
“We like to stick to the schedule right now for the most part,” Wheeler said. “Just so we don’t have to mix up our rotations a little bit or stress games and all that kind of stuff. So, just one game at a time, and just winning.”
While Wheeler was charged with five runs (three earned) over seven innings on Saturday, that line is a bit misleading. After giving up two unearned runs on a Trea Turner error in the second, Wheeler was tagged for three runs in the seventh, all of which came after Johan Rojas — an elite center fielder — misplayed a line drive that sailed over his head with flags flapping behind him.
“I thought he had a good performance,” Thompson said. “You look at that seventh inning there, where he gave up three runs, there were a couple of balls that weren’t hit very hard and then a misread by Rojas. … But that’s a very tough game.
Comfort aside, Wheeler is hitting his stride at the right time. He’s pitched at least six innings in 13 of his 14 starts — and he’s allowed three or fewer earned runs in 12 of those outings.
Wheeler has a 3.12 ERA since the All-Star break after putting up a 4.05 ERA in the first half.
“I feel good,” Wheeler said. “Personally, I feel good and I feel healthy. I feel good out there, so I’ve got to keep it going.”
And remember, this time last year, Wheeler was in a race against time just to build back for the postseason after a late-season layoff with right forearm tendonitis. Not to mention, the Phillies were in a fight just to secure a postseason spot — something they didn’t do until the final series of the regular season in Houston.
Things could go better this year, for both Wheeler and Phils.
“Last year was a little closer than we would have liked,” Wheeler said. “So just try to win as many games as we can and take care of what we need to control and control what we can control.”
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