Friday, June 21 2024

Lack of run support, defensive struggles hinder another Zack Wheeler start originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

One of the hardiest of all the baseball clichés is the one about how everything evens out in the long run. A batter whose line drives all seemed to be right at somebody will eventually benefit from a series of bloopers that fall in and broken bat grounders that somehow sneak through the infield, to cite a classic example.

“Yeah. I mean, that’s what we always say, right?” noted Zack Wheeler after another what-might-have-been start in what ended up as an unsightly 9-2 loss to the Pirates on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

It would have been preposterous to imagine on Opening Day that, at this point, Wheeler would have made four starts and that the Phillies would have lost all of them. Especially if that glimpse into the future included how well he’s pitched.

“It’s frustrating,” said manager Rob Thomson. “For the most part, he’s pitched really well. Even in that last inning.”

Added shortstop Trea Turner: “You never want to waste a start, especially when your ace is up there. It’s positive-negative because it feels like we’ve beat ourselves on those days. We were right in there for five innings [Sunday] and then let it get away.”

The last inning the manager referred to was the sixth, when Wheeler gave up a grand slam that not only erased a 2-1 Phillies lead but started the Pittsburgh rout.

Of the three-legged stool – offense-pitching-defense – that supports a successful baseball team, Wheeler has been a sturdy prop when he’s on the mound. The other two elements, not so much.

Your honor, we submit the following as evidence: Wheeler has held opponents to a .215 batting average. He’s struck out 30 while walking five. Even though he had a minor meltdown, his first of the season on Sunday, he cannot be found guilty of the team’s lack of success in games he’s on the clock.

The lack of run support is simple enough to identify. In his four starts, the lineup produced a total of six runs while he was on the mound.

Less obvious, but just as crucial, has been the number of times the defense has let him down. He had to pitch around errors in each of his first two starts; the second led to a pair of unearned runs. He was charged with his first earned run of the year on April 3 against the Reds when rightfielder Nick Castellanos pulled up on a two-out fly ball by Cincinnati’s Jake Fraley that probably should have ended the inning. Thomson explained afterward that Castellanos was still adjusting to the change in depth perception that resulted when the old out-of-town scoreboard in right was replaced. Regardless, it led to a run when Elly de la Cruz followed with another double.

It was more of the same early Sunday. Wheeler struck out 10 in the first five innings. In the fourth, though, the Pirates scored a run that tighter defense could have prevented.

After Rowdy Telez led off with a single, Andrew McCutchen hit a potential double play grounder to short but McCutchen beat the relay throw and moved up to second on Wheeler’s second wild pitch of the game.

Jack Suwinski walked and Jared Triolo followed with another could-have-been-a-DP grounder to third; again the throw to first was just a step late, leaving runners on first and third. The Phillies have turned just eight double plays this season.

“It’s something we went through last year,” Thomson said. “And as time went on we got better at it. I know [infield coach Bobby Dickerson] is really working hard on that and we’ll clean that up. We also gave up a lot of extra bases. You can’t do that. It was a weird game so we have to dust ourselves off and come back tomorrow and get going again.”

But the real problem occurred when Triolo attempted to steal second.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto came up firing. Second baseman Bryson Stott, conceding the bag, cut in front to intercept the throw when he saw McCutcheon break for the plate. But Realmuto’s throw sailed behind him and into center field. After at first charging the catcher with an error, the official scorer changed the call to a double steal, making the run earned.

“We had a return play on there, and the throw just got away from J.T.,” Thomson said. “If we play catch, he’s out.”

So maybe it was fitting that Wheeler’s undoing started with a fielding error by third baseman Alec Bohm that allowed Ke’Bryan Hayes to reach first leading off the sixth. After that, Wheeler crumbled for the first time this season.

Telez walked, McCutchen singled softly to load the bases and Suwinski launched a grand slam to right-center to knock the Cy Young Award candidate out of the game and put the Phillies in a hole they were unable to dig out of.

There were positive signs. Wheeler’s velocity was up, consistently in the 95-96 mile per hour range, and he was pleased with some mechanical adjustments he’d made.

“It was good, but it was frustrating at the same time,” he said. “The outcome wasn’t good. But personally I thought I made some good strides mechanically. Made an adjustment from last start to this start and the ball was coming out better. Something as simple as standing more upright rather than leaning over. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how the ball is moving. Next start I’ll be ready to go.”

And, heck, maybe even get a win. After all, his luck has to change. Unless it doesn’t.

Baseball history is littered with pitchers who, for whatever reason, always seem to start on days when they’re offense gets shut down. It happened to Cole Hamels more than once in his Phillies career. But that’s an exception, right? It can’t happen to Wheeler this season, right?

Right? Right?

NOTABLY

•Trea Turner’s homer in third inning was his first of the season. “It’s just nice to get it over with,” he said. “I was joking with everybody. You’re allowed to hit a home run. It’s not against the rules.” Despite a slow start in 2023, he ended up with 26 homers.
•Phillies pitchers combined for 15 strikeouts Sunday.
•Pirates DH Andrew McCutchen, who played for the Phillies from 2019-21, hit the 300th homer of his career off Ricardo Pinto in the ninth inning.
•Rob Thomson identified two reasons why righthander Nick Nelson was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley when righthander Orion Kerkering (strained forearm) was activated from the injured list before Sunday’s game. “[Ricardo] Pinto gives us a little bit more length. And one of the reasons we sent Nellie down at the start of the year was to get him more reps, so maybe his velocity will spike up again,” he explained.
•The Phillies concluded the third time through the rotation Saturday night with a combined 2.84 earned run average.
•Sunday’s sellout of 44,568 was the largest crowd of the year at Citizens Bank Park.

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Source: Yahoo Sports

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