September 21, 2023

Phillies closed out Braves thanks to one of the best starts of Zack Wheeler’s career

Phillies closed out Braves thanks to one of the best starts of Wheeler’s career originally appearing on NBC Sports Philadelphia

ATLANTA – The Phillies took the Braves two straight with a 2-1 victory Saturday, thanks in large part to one of the best starts of Zack Wheeler’s career.

The Phillies’ ace felt it, hitting 98 mph three times in the first inning and throwing 27 pitches of at least 97. Wheeler’s two-seamer speed was a full mph higher than his season average and he hit Braves hitters into the inside corner with it. He knocked out the dangerous Austin Riley and Sean Murphy twice apiece and knocked out lefty Matt Olson all four times he faced him.

Wheeler almost didn’t get a chance to face Olson that last time. He had 97 pitches over seven innings and manager Rob Thomson told him he had two batters left in the eighth: Michael Harris II and Ronald Acuña Jr. The right-hander promptly struckout Harris and Acuña and got a groundball from Olson on two pitches.

Eight innings, three hits, no runs, 12 strikeouts. Dominance.

“He had everything going,” Thomson said. “The two-seater had a bite. They were chopping balls all day in our dugout.”

Wheeler took advantage of an excellent, run-saving defensive play by third baseman Alec Bohm in the fourth inning. With one man on second and one out, the smoking hot Marcell Ozuna hit a ground ball down the third base line and Bohm ducked right and threw it out from his knees. When Bohm doesn’t glove the ball, he scores a run, puts Ozuna in scoring position and forces a high tension on Wheeler, who was instead out two pitches later in the inning.

“Huge, huge. It was a great piece,” said Thomson. “And the presence of mind to stay on the ground and jump to first base because he knew he had time, just a great game. In the last year he’s grown so much – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s just fantastic .”

The Braves have won five consecutive NL East titles and have the league’s best offense to date in 2023. Still, in 11 starts against the Braves as a member of the Phillies, Wheeler is 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA.

He’s a big pitcher who looks set to take on this league rival.

“It’s an aggressive team, so you have to respond to that,” he said. “I throw a lot of attacks and that kind of work goes hand in hand with them being aggressive. But at the same time, if you don’t have your warrant, they’re going to make you pay for it. You have to be very diligent out there.

“I know this lineup pretty well. They have some new guys, but I know pretty well about these guys where to go at certain times.”

The Phils are 25-27 and looking to win the four-game series against first place Atlanta on Sunday Night Baseball. Wheeler’s long performance was especially significant with Dylan Covey making his first start as Phillie in the final.

The Braves’ Charlie Morton was also tied early and maxed out at 98 mph, but the Phillies managed to get past him in the fifth inning with production from the bottom of the order. Brandon Marsh led off the frame with a single and Kody Clemens doubled to put two into scoring position. Bryson Stott followed with a sacrifice fly and Trea Turner doubled to bring in a run for the second game in a row.

Clemens continues to produce in a part-time role. He batted .333 over his last 12 starts with four home runs, three doubles and 10 RBI. He has essentially claimed the role that Darick Hall started the season with, starting at first base against right-handed pitchers. Hall will begin a rehab assignment in Clearwater on Tuesday, but he’ll have to make his way back to the greats given the amount of time he’s missed with a sprained thumb and the success Clemens has had.

Turner may finally be in the early stages of a hot streak. He has batted in a run in back-to-back games for the first time this season and has an extra-base hit in three of his last four games.

“I’m coming, come closer,” Turner said. “The statistics are not that crazy, but the quality of the at bats is getting better, putting the ball in play, doing what I want a bit. I feel much better, more confident.

“I really enjoyed today. I made a little adjustment and felt really good, the strikeouts are decreasing. I’m just trying to stay consistent. All good signs. I just need to warm up.”

Craig Kimbrel closed out the win for the No. 401 save, the day after becoming the eighth member of the 400-save club. After his big moment on Friday night, he joked that he had to go sports for another hour because there was a game to be won the next day. They did win. Kimbrel allowed a one-out solo homer to Sean Murphy, but struck out Ozuna and Eddie Rosario to end the game, giving the Phillies a chance to win their first NL East series of 2023.

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