After four years in Philadelphia, Zach Wheeler knows the crowd will be rowdy, the drinks will be flowing and Citizens Bank Park will be jumping for a big game.
“I knew it was going to be crazy, but I didn’t expect it. That was awesome,” he said after the Phillies opened the 2023 season with a 4-1 win over the Marlins.
It’s a legitimate on-field advantage that was cited by opposing teams repeatedly last October, and it took every playoff game for the opposing manager to point it out after his team fell to the Phillies on Tuesday night.
“The crowd got into it, there’s no doubt about that,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “It’s a really good team, tested in the playoffs. I think the story was from Wheeler. He was excellent.”
The Phillies looked like the more prepared team on Tuesday. They had key players early and often. Wheeler pitched a gem in the seventh inning. The bullpen delivered zeros. Every starting position player got a hit. They played clean defense, including the first play of the game when Luis Arraez passed a ball sharply to Christian Pasch in left field. It was caught, and the Marlins did not hit another ball to the outfield until Josh Bell doubled in the seventh inning, 20 batters later.
“It was electric,” Trea Turner said of the atmosphere in his first playoff games as a Philly. “It’s been a lot of fun. I think the intros were pretty funny from the beginning. I just laugh at the energy I have and watch the other team have to deal with it. It’s always fun.”
“But they were good. They were good the whole game from the first inning, getting on their feet every couple of snaps. It was fun to be a part of them.”
Turner went 2-for-3 with a double, a walk and two stolen bases in his first Phillies playoff game. Alec Baum drove the car in the first round. JT Realmuto scored the second run. Nick Castellanos doubled twice. The Phillies knew they would need their right-handed hitters to step up against a Marlins team that had seven left-handers on their 12-man roster, and they did just that. Those four were a combined 6-for-15 with four doubles, while Johan Rojas scored the first run and Bache drove in the third.
“We believe everyone is here for a reason, and we can all contribute,” Turner said. “We’re grinding things out, whether it’s offensively or the pitching staff, whatever it is. The bullpen was great. I thought our bats were pretty good off of a good pitching staff. They had really good arms out there.”
“We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we did our best. It was a good win for the team.”
Wheeler had his A-plus stuff. He has started Game 1 in three of the Phillies’ five playoff series over the past 12 months and won all three. His fastball velocity went up a full mile per hour Tuesday night and sat 98-99 early. For the second month in a row, his speed and finishing look better than they did in the regular season despite carrying a huge workload for the fourth year in a row.
How is this even possible? He credited the crowd.
“Honestly, I don’t know. It’s got to be the atmosphere and the adrenaline,” Wheeler said. “As soon as I came out of the dugout to lay out there in the bullpen, the crowd went crazy, and I got goosebumps. So it started right there. I think it was kind of an encouragement to get me to throw the baseball. It definitely helps.”
“Never take it for granted. Like I said before, as soon as I walked out of the dugout onto the bullpen, I immediately got chills. I knew it was going to be crazy, but I didn’t expect it. That was awesome. They really got me going.”
“That’s why we all love playing here at home. Throughout the game, maybe 3-2 down the field or sometimes with two strikes, the crowd goes crazy, and you kind of sit there and take the ball for a second and then you shut it down.” “Go back inside and go after the guy.”
Wheeler has taken his career to the next level as a Philly. You rarely hear him described as a “big star,” but the description is apt. He’s been one of the five best pitchers in baseball since signing with the Phillies after 2019. If you’re interested in WAR (wins above replacement), he leads all starting pitchers during that time.
He now has a 2.58 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in seven playoff appearances. Fewer than three starters every four innings. On the grandest of stages, under intense scrutiny, against some of the best hitters and teams baseball has to offer.
“I hope (people) appreciate it because I sure do,” manager Rob Thompson said. “I think everyone in this organization appreciates what he did because he was exceptional. Tonight is no exception, so I hope he continues that.”
Wheeler is an old school guy. He is sincere when he talks, says what he means and is usually not eager to talk about himself. His answer when asked if he felt appropriately appreciated was not surprising.
“I feel like I’m doing my job honestly,” he said. “That’s why I came here, that’s why the Phillies signed me, to pitch like I do. So maybe some people didn’t expect it or were afraid of it at first because of my history, but I knew what I was capable of doing.” .
“It’s been fun. It’s been a fun ride. Getting to the postseason, there’s nothing like it. I’m just trying to do exactly the same thing, but I think the adrenaline and everything goes up, you play it a little bit more and sometimes that helps.”
Wheeler will line up to start Game 2 in Atlanta if the Phillies get another win over the Marlins to advance to the NLDS.
But first, they could use a similarly quality starter from this round’s Game 2 player, Aaron Nola.
“He’s a guy you can count on,” Thompson said. “Him and Nola, they’ve been in some pretty big games the last two seasons.”
“Alcohol enthusiast. Twitter ninja. Tv lover. Falls down a lot. Hipster-friendly coffee geek.”