Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Phillies’ Zack Wheeler is an all-time big-time pitcher; Now Aaron Nola can add to legacy

Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola throws during the third inning of Game 2 of the NL Championship Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday in Philadelphia.  (Tribune News Service)
By Bill Evans Tribune News Service

There’s a baseball line that says momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.

The Arizona Diamondbacks couldn’t possibly have gained any more momentum with a comeback from a three-run deficit in the late innings Friday night, evening the best-of-seven National League Championship at two games apiece with a 6-5 win over the Phillies.

But as the reeling Phillies picked up the pieces in their locker room, they were content in one factor.

Zack Wheeler was on the mound the next day. Wheeler lived up to his reputation as a big-game pitcher, twirling seven much-needed innings and allowing only run to lead the Phillies to a 6-1 win Saturday and put them on the verge of clinching a second straight World Series berth on Monday night in Game 6 at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s definitely a thought,” admitted Wheeler about the circumstances surrounding Game 5. As a pitcher it’s kind of on you, a lot of it. So, you know, you’re definitely thinking about it coming into the game.

“I know the bullpen was taxed a little bit, so I needed to go deep, and obviously I wanted that to be quality innings. So I was able to do that, go deep into the game, save the bullpen a little bit, and get out of there with a lead.”

The Diamondbacks had their own ace in Zac Gallen – who started the All-Star Game – and he hung in with Wheeler for five innings until Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper hit over 900 feet of home runs in the sixth inning.

“It’s a big game,” said Harper. “We have to come in here and take advantage of that. We know we have Zack Wheeler on the mound, so all of us coming to the ballpark know we have a good chance to win because he’s on the mound. So being able to do that and see that, getting two runs early there in the first, and kind of having that momentum keep going throughout the whole game. I thought we played really good defense.

“Zack, I mean, you can’t say enough about him. I told him after the game, I was, like, you’re one of the best pitchers I’ve ever played with, man. I’ve played with a lot of good ones, and he’s easily top three. It’s incredible what he does. It’s so much fun to watch. I love playing behind him, and it’s incredible. He’s legit, man.”

In just two seasons, Wheeler is 4-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 10 postseason starts and the numbers could be better. Two of his losses came when a misplay by Rhys Hoskins was scored a hit in last year’s National League Division Series against Atlanta and Game 6 of the World Series against Houston last year where he left with a 1-0 lead and Jose Alvarado allowed two of his inherited runners to score.

He also left with leads in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series last year and Game 2 of the NLDS this year and ended up with no-decisions.

Wheeler has 68 strikeouts in 61 postseason innings and a stellar WHIP of 0.769.

“It’s cool, it’s special. I take pride in it,” said Wheeler of having his name tossed around with some of the best postseason pitchers in history. “There’s been a lot of great pitchers that pitched in the postseason. A bunch of them probably have more innings and body of work than I do, but I try to do the best I can with what I have.”

The series now shifts to Game 6 and Aaron Nola, who is in the midst of putting together a postseason for the ages. In three starts this year, he is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA.

Nola’s postseason performance last year – like Wheeler his first time pitching in the playoffs – was mixed. If he can pitch the Phillies into the World Series, it could be the crowning moment of his Phillies’ career, unless of course he tops it in a week.

Nola is a free agent at the end of the season. He would like to come back, but after these playoffs there will be plenty of suitors lined up.

“I feel like lately it’s been a little more consistency delivery-wise, like I’ve said, these last couple of outings and especially in the postseason,” said Nola. “I mean, everything matters so much right now, right? The only thing I can control is the controlables, which is the delivery and mostly where the ball goes. But once it leaves my hands, the results are out of my control.”