After four years in Philly, Zack Wheeler knows the crowd will be loud, the beverages will flow and Citizens Bank Park will be jumping for a big game.
“I knew it was going to be crazy,” he said after the Phillies opened their 2023 postseason with a 4-1 win over the Marlins, “but I didn’t expect that. That was awesome.”
It’s a legitimate home-field advantage opposing teams cited frequently last October, and it took all of one playoff game for the opposing manager to reference it after his team fell to the Phillies Tuesday night.
“The crowd was into it, no doubt about it,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “It’s a really good team, playoff-tested. … I think the story was Wheeler. He was just excellent.”
The Phillies looked like the more ready team on Tuesday. They had baserunners early and often. Wheeler pitched a gem into the seventh inning. The bullpen delivered zeroes. Every starting position player had a hit. They played clean defense, including on the first play of the game when Luis Arraez lined a ball sharply to Cristian Pache in left field. It was caught, and the Marlins wouldn’t hit another ball to the outfield until Josh Bell doubled in the seventh inning, 20 batters later.
“It was electric,” Trea Turner said of the atmosphere for his first playoff games as a Phillie. “It was a lot of fun. From the start, I think, intros are pretty funny. I laugh at just the energy and watching the other team kind of have to deal with it. Always kind of fun.
“But they were good. They were good all game from the first inning, on their feet every two strikes. It was fun to be a part of.”
Turner went 2-for-3 with a double, a walk and two stolen bases in his Phillies playoff debut. Alec Bohm drove in the first run. J.T. Realmuto scored the second run. Nick Castellanos doubled twice. The Phillies knew they’d need their right-handed hitters to step up against a Marlins team that has seven lefties on their 12-man pitching staff, and they did. Those four were a combined 6-for-15 with four doubles, while Johan Rojas scored the first run and Pache drove in the third.
“We think everyone’s here for a reason, and we all can contribute,” Turner said. “We grind things out, whether it’s offensively or pitching staff, whatever it may be. The bullpen was awesome. Our at-bats, I thought, were pretty good off a good pitching staff. They got really good arms over there.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we grind things out. It was a good team win.”
Wheeler had his A-plus stuff. He has started Game 1 in three of the Phillies’ five playoff series over the last 12 months and won all three. His fastball velocity was up a full mile per hour Tuesday night and sat 98-99 early. For a second straight October, the velocity and finish to his pitches looks better than it did in the regular season despite his carrying a hefty workload for a fourth consecutive year.
How is this even possible? He credited the crowd.
“I don’t know, honestly. It’s got to be the atmosphere and the adrenaline going,” Wheeler said. “As soon as I stepped foot out of the dugout to go stretch out there in the bullpen, the crowd went nuts, and I got chills. So it started right there. I think it just kind of carries into me throwing the baseball. It definitely helps.
“You never take it for granted. Like I said earlier, just walking out of the dugout to the bullpen, I got chills right away. I knew it was going to be crazy, but I didn’t expect that. That was awesome. They really got me going.
“That’s why we all love it playing here at home. Throughout the game, maybe 3-2 pitch or sometimes with two strikes, the crowd’s going crazy, and you kind of just sit there and just take it in for a second and then lock it back in and go after the guy.”
Wheeler has taken his career to the next level as a Phillie. You rarely hear him classified as a “superstar,” but the description fits. He’s been a top-five starting pitcher in all of baseball since signing with the Phillies after 2019. If you care about WAR (Wins Above Replacement), he leads all starting pitchers over that time.
He now has a 2.58 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in seven playoff starts. Fewer than three baserunners every four innings. On the grandest of stages, under the most intense scrutiny, against some of the best hitters and teams baseball has to offer.
“I hope (people) appreciate it because I certainly do,” manager Rob Thomson said. “I think everybody in this organization appreciates what he’s done because it’s been phenomenal. Tonight is no exception, so hopefully he keeps it going.”
Wheeler is an old-school guy. He’s honest when he speaks, says what he means and isn’t typically excited to talk about himself. His answer when asked if he feels properly appreciated wasn’t surprising.
“I just feel like I’m doing my job, honestly,” he said. “That’s why I came here, and that’s why the Phillies signed me, to pitch like I am. So maybe some people didn’t expect it or were scared of it at first because of my history, but I knew what I was capable of.
“It’s been fun. It’s been a fun ride. Making it to the postseason, there’s nothing like it. I just try to do the exact same thing, but I think my adrenaline and everything comes up, and it just plays a tiny bit more, and sometimes that helps you.”
Wheeler would line up to start Game 2 in Atlanta should the Phillies pick up another win over the Marlins to advance to the NLDS.
But first, they could use a start of similar quality from the Game 2 pitcher in this round, Aaron Nola.
“He’s a guy you can lean on,” Thomson said. “Him and Nola, they’ve been in some pretty big games the last couple of postseasons.”
Christine Lake is a sports fanatic who lives and breathes athletics. With an extensive background in sports journalism, he covers everything from major league championships to grassroots sports events. When she’s not on the field or at the stadium, you’ll find Christine coaching youth sports teams.