Phillies manager Joe Girardi has taken plenty of heat for his pitching moves this season, but he has pushed the right buttons the last two days.
Girardi rode his bullpen -- nine relievers covered 10 innings -- to a must win in Miami on Sunday then followed his gut again to another important win Monday in Milwaukee.
Of course, it helps when your team hits the ball out of the ballpark, and the Phillies have done plenty of that the last two days, too.
The Phils got an excellent start from Zack Wheeler and home runs from Bryce Harper, Freddy Galvis, Brad Miller, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura in rolling to a 12-0 Labor Day win over the Brewers in Milwaukee. Miller had two homers.
The Phils have hit eight homers the last two days with Harper, Galvis and Miller contributing two apiece.
Monday’s win allowed the Phillies (71-66) to pick up a half-game on the idle Atlanta Braves in the tight NL East race. The Phils are just 1½ game back. They entered Monday 2½ back in the wild-card race.
The Brewers are running away with the NL Central title, but they’ve had their problems with the Phillies this season. The Phils swept a four-game series from the Brewers in Philadelphia in May and are up one game in this series with two to play.
Wheeler went the distance and shut the Brewers out on three hits, no walks and eight strikeouts on May 6.
He was brilliant against the Crew again on Monday. He delivered six scoreless innings. He scattered five hits, did not walk a batter and struck out nine.
Both times, Wheeler has out-pitched Brandon Woodruff, who entered Monday’s start with the fourth-best ERA in the majors (2.35).
Woodruff entered the game having allowed just 14 homers in 26 starts. He gave up three of them in this one. Harper clubbed a two-run homer (No. 28) in the first inning. Galvis smacked a solo shot with two outs in the second and Miller led off the fourth with a solo blow. McCutchen went deep against reliever Brad Boxberger in the eighth and Segura followed moments later with his first career grand slam against Daniel Norris. Miller belted his second of the day against a position player in the ninth.
Wheeler has had a brilliant season for the Phillies, but his August was relatively lackluster as he went 3-3 and pitched to a 4.81 ERA in six starts. The right-hander leads the majors in innings pitched (188⅔) and strikeouts (217).
Like every other starter in the rotation, Wheeler is crucial to the Phillies’ chances down the stretch. The Phils have arranged their rotation to make sure he starts the opener of a series against the Braves in Atlanta later this month, as well as Game 162, which could decide the team’s playoff fate.
In rearranging the rotation, the Phils also got Wheeler two extra days of rest before this start against Milwaukee. It looked like it helped. Wheeler’s stuff was crisp. He threw 99 pitches and got 16 swings and misses, 10 on his four-seam fastball. The pitched topped out at 99 mph and averaged 97.
Wheeler had another inning in him when he exited with a 4-0 lead after six innings, but Girardi is closely watching his ace’s workload down the stretch and 100 pitches is the magic number.
The Phillies’ bullpen protected the lead -- getting seven runs in the eighth helped -- the rest of the way. Had the bullpen imploded in the seventh, Girardi would have been roasted for his decision to hook Wheeler. But Hector Neris, pitching for the third day in a row, made Girardi look smart with three strikeouts in the eighth, giving him 501 in his career. Neris is closing in on Ron Reed, the Phillies’ all-time leader in strikeouts as a reliever. Reed had 519.
Over the last two months, Neris has allowed just 14 hits and four runs in 28⅓ innings.
Matt Moore followed Neris with three strikeouts in the eighth and stayed on for the ninth. The rest of the bullpen got a rest. On Labor Day. A good Labor Day for the Phillies.