After blowing four saves and suffering two brutal losses in the first three games of their pivotal series with the division-leading Mets, the Phillies bounced back behind Zack Wheeler for a split.
Wheeler, who lasted just three innings his last time out, has not made back-to-back bad starts all season. In two years with the Phillies, he’s made consecutive non-quality-starts one time.
“To me, you can’t be a winning team without having guys like that,” manager Joe Girardi said.
The Phillies won 4-2 thanks to the typical electricity from their ace and situational hitting. They had no trouble with Marcus Stroman, chasing him after three innings and 74 pitches.
Their first run scored after a sacrifice bunt and a sac fly, and their second run scored after a sacrifice bunt and an RBI groundout. An offense struggling as much as the Phillies’ needs to manufacture runs like this more frequently. They entered the day averaging 4.26 runs per game, which was 17th in the majors and barely ahead of the 22-56 Diamondbacks’ mark of 4.24.
Wheeler lowered his ERA to 2.20 with seven scoreless innings and has a 2.49 ERA in 27 starts as a Phillie. He's been as good as, if not better than Gerrit Cole since signing for $206 million less than Cole in the same offseason.
"We really needed it," Girardi said. "Again, he was outstanding. Efficient with his pitches on a really hot day. It was really humid today.
"I think Zack is, to me, there’s no question he’s an All-Star pitcher this year. I mean, I don’t know how you can pitch much better than him. I know there are some people with lower ERAs but I don’t know how you can pitch much better."
Wheeler is a near-lock to make his first All-Star team.
"I’ve always had iffy first halves so to get off on a good foot and keep it rolling, it feels pretty good," he said.
Jose Alvarado pitched the eighth and gave up a run but struck out Michael Conforto and James McCann to end the inning. Archie Bradley was taken deep for a solo shot in the ninth but picked up his first save as a Phillie. Girardi reiterated after the game that Alvarado is the closer for now and that he went to him in the eighth based on matchups.
This is the first time since early May that all three of Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin pitched well in the same cycle through the rotation. Eflin allowed one run over six innings Saturday and Nola struck out 12 over 5⅓ scoreless innings Friday. Phillies starters gave up one run in 23⅓ innings in the series.
The Phils lost the starts by Nola and Eflin and their 22-25 record in games started by their top three is alarming and unacceptable. Had you been told before the season that would be the Phillies’ record through 75 games behind their top trio, you’d likely think they’d be worse than 36-39.
The Phils end the weekend five games behind the Mets in the NL East. They are tied for third place with the Braves and a game behind the Nationals.
"We got two but we could have had four," Girardi said. "That’s kind of how I leave. But we’ve got to move on and finish strong going into the break."
Bryce Harper missed his 20th game of the season after taking a Jacob deGrom changeup to the left leg Saturday. He stayed in to run but removed himself the next half-inning. It’s been a trying first half for Harper, who has dealt with injuries to his back, shoulder, face, wrist and leg.
"He’s day to day," Girardi said. "We’ll see how he feels tomorrow."
The Phillies have a make-up game Monday at 6:40 p.m. in Cincinnati, then spend the rest of the week at home with series against the Marlins and Padres.
You could say those are two big series, but every series the rest of the way is big for the Phillies, who have dug themselves a hole with bad defense, disappointing offense and an unreliable bullpen. They’ll be big series whether the Phillies are facing a contender like the Padres, a 100-loss team like the Pirates or one that gives them fits in the Marlins.
Spencer Howard (0-2, 5.59) gets the start in Cincinnati against left-hander Wade Miley (6-4, 2.85).