Zack Wheeler had a pretty nice — yet injury-hampered— career with the Mets. When he signed a free-agent deal with the Phillies ahead of the 2020 season, Wheeler had never been an All-Star, made a postseason start or pitched 200 innings.
Once a top prospect, Wheeler was no longer necessarily viewed as a difference maker.
He was considered a second-tier pitcher who could eat innings, strike batters out and be a dependable No. 3-type of starter.
These days in Philly, Wheeler almost seems like a bargain as the ace of the reigning NL champs.
Wheeler is the Phillies’ most dependable starter as he gets set for Game 1 of the NL Championship Series against Arizona on Monday. An NL Cy Young Award runner-up in 2021, Wheeler has topped 200 innings once, gone over 200 strikeouts twice and won a pair of playoff games over four seasons since he signed a $118 million, five-year contract.
After he missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons following Tommy John surgery, Wheeler has made 90 starts the last three seasons.
“Well,” Wheeler said of the expectations heaped on him with his deal, “you have to live up to it, right?”
Not too shabby.
The 33-year-old Wheeler passed on more money (the White Sox reportedly offered $120 million) to sign with the Phillies because of a preference to stay on the East Coast. Wheeler has blossomed into a No. 1 starter because — yes, he’s more years removed from elbow surgery — but he’s also cleaned up an unnecessary wrinkle in his delivery and mastered the two-seam and four-seam fastball.
“I think the biggest thing for me was getting rid of, I used to curl my wrist,” he said. “When I broke it out of my glove, I used to curl my wrist. And that’s one more thing that had to catch up before I went to the plate. As soon as I got rid of that, it was night and day.”
Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and the rest of the Phillies sluggers earned the bulk of the credit for a second straight run to the NLCS.
But what team goes anywhere in the postseason without a solid starting staff? Wheeler, Game 2 starter Aaron Nola and Game 3 starter Ranger Suárez have all pitched like aces in seven playoff starts.
Wheeler pitched into the seventh inning in both of his two starts and has struck out 18 and walked one overall. Nola is 2-0, struck out 12, allowed two runs and walked two. Suárez, while filling a different role, walked one so far and the Phillies won both of the lefty’s starts.