ATLANTA – Maybe the Phillies heard what Dave Dombrowski had to say before the game.
Or maybe everyone just grabbed a seat on the Zack Wheeler Excellence Express and enjoyed the ride.
Whatever the case, the Phillies were victorious in their first meeting of the season against the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves on Monday night. Rhys Hoskins stroked a three-run double, Roman Quinn drove in a pair of runs and cut down one with his arm and, of course, Wheeler was Wheeler in leading a 7-3 win.
All in all, a good way to start a series against the Braves, who have won four straight National League East titles and prevailed in seven of nine meetings against the Phillies last season in Atlanta.
Wheeler, an Atlanta area native who went to high school just 21 miles west of Truist Park, picked right up where he left off last season against the Braves. He pitched 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball, walked none and struck out 10.
“It’s just another game,” Wheeler said of the opponent. “But it’s nice to be at home and sleep in my own bed.”
Wheeler said he did not leave many tickets for the game as players often do when they play in their hometown.
“All business,” he said.
Wheeler faced the Braves five times in 2021 and allowed just five runs in 33 2/3 innings (1.60 ERA) while striking out 41 and walking seven.
In this one, the right-hander struck out eight of 10 batters at one point. He ran out of gas as his pitch count rose over 100 in the seventh inning and things got hairy as Jeurys Familia and Connor Brogdon bobbed and weaved through four outs. Corey Knebel came on in the ninth to finish it off.
Relievers Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado were unavailable due to workload.
The win left the Phillies at 20-22 with three more to play in Atlanta before a big weekend series against the division-leading Mets in New York. The Braves are 19-23.
Before the game, Dombrowski, the Phillies president of baseball operations, expressed his displeasure with the club’s losing record.
“We need to play better,” he said. “We’re already eight games behind. That’s not good. It’s not insurmountable by any means. But I do think we have to go out there and play consistently well.”
Dombrowski went on to say he was surprised at the inconsistency shown by the Phillies’ offense.
As if on cue, the Phillies went out and scored seven runs in the first four innings, five against starter Tucker Davidson, a rookie left-hander.
Davidson gave up a single and two walks in the second inning and Hoskins made him pay with a three-run double to right-center. J.T. Realmuto tripled home a run in the third and Quinn added a two-run double in the frame.
Wheeler began his outing by allowing a double and two singles with one out in the first inning. He got out of the inning unscathed thanks to Quinn, who threw out William Contreras at the plate on a single to center by Marcell Ozuna.
Quinn’s throw came to the plate at 99.9 mph, according to Statcast.
“I got a good jump on it and fielded it cleanly,” Quinn said. “My momentum was coming in and I let it eat.”
Wheeler was grateful that Quinn let it eat.
“Awesome throw,” the pitcher said. “It was big for us because it stopped their momentum. It pumped me up.”
After that, Wheeler did not allow another hit until the fifth when he gave up a double and a shift-aided base hit for a run. Wheeler became fatigued and allowed a run in the seventh. He finished with 105 pitches. He threw a first-pitch strike to 19 of 26 batters.
Wheeler’s four-seam fastball averaged 96.3 mph and topped out at 97.6 mph. He mixed that with a slider and a sinker and generated 20 swings and misses. He had 19 in his previous start. Wheeler credited the swings and misses to the ability to locate his four-seam fastball and improvements that pitching coach Caleb Cotham has helped him make to his slider.
Wheeler has allowed just five runs in 26 2/3 innings over four starts this month. That’s a 1.69 ERA. Not too shabby.
The Phils have won two in a row. Kyle Gibson will look to keep it going Tuesday night when he faces lefty Max Fried.
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