Phillies vs. Cardinals: Zack Wheeler explains how J.T. Realmuto has made him better

Entering his biggest start, Wheeler explains how Realmuto has made him a better pitcher originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

ST. LOUIS -- There was a moment in Zack Wheeler's last start Sunday afternoon in Washington when things were getting a little hairy.

The Phillies were up, 1-0, in the bottom of the third inning. The Nationals had runners on the corners with no outs. It was an important game for the Phillies in the middle of a playoff chase and it was time for a big play.

Wheeler did his part by striking out Riley Adams and J.T. Realmuto did his by gunning down Victor Robles as he tried to steal second.

Later that afternoon, manager Rob Thomson called the strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out twin killing "the play of the game." The Phillies won, 8-1, and took a big step toward the place they will be Friday afternoon -- a first-round playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

Wheeler struck out Robles swinging at a 2-2 four-seam fastball, 96 mph, perfectly executed up in the zone, above the barrel of the bat.

He was able to execute that pitch with precision because the mechanics of his delivery were perfect.

And the mechanics of his delivery were perfect because he trusted Realmuto to handle the running game.

"Throwing to J.T. has really allowed me to do a better job with runners on base," Wheeler said. "I'm able to stay mechanically sound which allows me to make the best pitch I possibly can because I'm not rushing to the plate.

"I can stay back on the mound. That was always my biggest thing, leaning forward and going and I'd miss arm side or pull the ball. With J.T. back there, I don't have to be quick because I know he's got it."

Wheeler's performance with runners on base this season has been excellent. He held hitters to a .215 batting average and a .563 OPS with runners on base, a big improvement over .261/.725 in 2021.

The 2020 season, Wheeler's first with the Phillies, was shortened to 60 games. With the Mets in 2019, Wheeler's opponents' batting average and OPS were .262/.713. The year before, they were .268/.725.

Shortly after signing with the Phillies before the 2020 season, Wheeler said Realmuto was one of the reasons he wanted to come to Philadelphia.

"I could always see what a good athlete and baseball player he was," Wheeler said. "But I didn't realize how much he'd help me with runners on base. That was something I learned later.

"I really rely on him for his game-calling and ability to control the running game. He does his homework and I trust him. He makes it less stressful on me."

Realmuto enters the postseason on the momentum of a terrific regular season. He hit .276 with 22 homers, 84 RBIs and an .820 OPS. After the All-Star break, he hit .307 with 14 homers, 46 RBIs and a .949 OPS to help the Phils break a 10-year playoff drought.

In addition, Realmuto's baserunning was brilliant. He was successful on 21 of 22 stolen-base attempts, joining Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez as the only catchers with at least 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season.

Some of Realmuto's most eye-popping stats came behind the plate.

Blessed with excellent footwork, a quick release and a strong, accurate arm, he finished with 20 of the top 25 pop times to second base in the majors this season, including the top two, at 1.73 seconds.

The 31-year-old Oklahoman led the majors by throwing out 44.1 percent of would-be base stealers. Future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina of the Cardinals was second at 39.4 percent. Realmuto caught 30 of 68 runners. He nabbed five more than the next closest catcher, Seattle's Cal Raleigh, who had 25.

That double play that Realmuto was involved in Sunday in Washington was his 11th of the season. No other major league catcher had more than seven.

"I try to be the best I can in all facets of the game," Realmuto said. "Controlling the running game is kind of a lost art. It might be more important with the new rules (bigger bases, a limit on pickoff attempts) next year, but I take a lot of pride in it."

Wheeler is 30-19 since joining the Phillies before the 2020 season. His ERA of 2.82 is the fifth-best in the majors over that span. He's sixth in innings pitched (437⅓) and seventh in WHIP (1.04).

He is a worthy choice to throw the first pitch by a Phillie in a playoff game since Roy Halladay left it all on the mound 11 years ago Saturday.

"It's an honor," said Wheeler, who has never played in the postseason before.

His batterymate is also a postseason first-timer.

"I've talked to some of my teammates who've been in this situation," Realmuto said. "They say you'll have more butterflies than usual, but it's the same game. It's all about winning."

Wheeler beat the Cardinals in back-to-back starts in July, holding them scoreless in 14 innings. Since coming back from a month-long stay on the injured list in mid-September, he has made three starts and given up just a run in 15 innings.

He's ready.

And Realmuto will be right there with him.

"We're going to stick with Zack's strengths," Realmuto said. "Pound the zone with multiple pitches."

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