Joe Girardi wants to keep Zack Wheeler right around 100 pitches in his remaining starts this season.
It’s really not that big of a deal if you look at it this way:
Wheeler has averaged 100.8 pitches in his 28 starts this season. He’s reached 118 once, 114 twice and 111 once. Other than that, he’s been under 109 pitches in every other start.
Girardi is simply keeping him right around his average — which, by the way, is the highest in the majors. Wheeler also leads the majors in total number of pitches thrown — 2,821.
The 31-year-old right-hander has carried a huge load for the Phillies this season. He leads the majors with 188 2/3 innings, a career-high, and lines up to have five more starts down the stretch as the Phillies look to stop a nine-year playoff drought from reaching a decade.
Girardi wants to make sure Wheeler is strong and healthy the rest of the way. Hence, his plan to keep Wheeler right around his season average number of pitches per outing.
“It’s not hard and fast,” Girardi said after Wheeler shut down the Milwaukee Brewers for six innings on 99 pitches in the Phillies’ 12-0 win Monday. “I’m not going to take him out if there’s two outs and in the seventh and he has 99 pitches. He could get out of the inning with one more pitch.
“It’s balancing act. Zack has worked his tail off to get to this point and he’ll continue to do that. We just have to make sure we don’t push him too hard.
“We still have a ways to go and we’re making sure he’s fresh every time he goes out there, as fresh as you can be this time of year.
“We need his A stuff every time. That’s not easy for any pitcher but we’re doing everything we can to give him an opportunity to do that. The big thing is to get six or seven good innings out of him and keep him fresh if we can.”
Wheeler, who also leads the majors with 217 strikeouts, is on board with the plan. He had more in the tank when he exited up 4-0 after six innings Monday, but he sees the big picture.
“I think it’s smart what we’re doing, trying to dial it back a little and stay fresh,” he said. “That’s the goal, to pitch in the playoffs, go far in the playoffs. It’s the goal every spring training, to win the World Series. I’ve never pitched in the playoffs, just with the crowd, the intensity, all that stuff. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully we can get there.”
Wheeler isn’t the only variable every fifth day as the Phillies try to run down a playoff berth. If he’s going to be held to six or seven innings in his final starts, the bullpen has to come through behind him and the offense has to score runs so the ‘pen is protecting leads on those days.
All the pieces matter, as Lester Freamon said in The Wire.
If Wheeler needed a reason to believe in Girardi’s handling of him, it might have come Monday when he did not walk a batter and struck out nine Brewers in six innings. Girardi and his staff rearranged the rotation to optimize Wheeler in the final week of the season. Just as important in altering Wheeler’s schedule was getting him two extra days of rest before Monday’s start. Wheeler entered the game on the heels of a pedestrian August performance. He went 3-3 with a 4.81 ERA in six starts.
“Having an extra day or two this past start definitely helped,” Wheeler said after Monday’s game. “I’ve got a lot of innings, especially after not doing too much last year. We’re trying to be smart about it. The performance kind of showed that I was getting a little fatigued, tired, whatever you want to call it the past couple starts. I might look fine with my velocity, but the command goes a little. So just that one extra day or two definitely helps.
“That’s the goal, finish strong, especially where we’re at. Just trying to be strong and hopefully make that playoff push.”
Aaron Nola and Kyle Gibson are both just as important to the delicate balance of the Phillies’ starting rotation and the team’s playoff hopes.
They pitch Tuesday and Wednesday night, respectively, in Milwaukee. Nola’s September struggles are well documented. The Phils need a good one from him as he opposes lefty Eric Lauer.