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‘That saved me': Wheeler deals in series finale against Reds, credits Castellanos' catch

CINCINNATI — It’s not often that a baseball game, which in its two or more hours and its nine or more innings encompasses a seemingly infinite combination of permutations and inflection points, can be distilled down to a single linchpin moment.

A case could be made, though, that that’s exactly what happened Thursday afternoon at Great American Ballpark.

Sure, Zack Wheeler was overpowering once again, striking out eight and allowing just one hit in six innings as he raised his record to 2-3 and lowered his earned run average to 1.93. In the big picture that obviously played a huge role in the Phillies 5-0 win over the Reds.

Yeah, the lineup pummeled Reds starter Nick Martinez for five runs on 11 hits in five innings. That had a lot to do with it, too.

But none of that pinpoints the precise moment when the series finale reached the fork in the road and veered onto the path that gave the Phillies a split of their four-game series against the Reds. That pin was dropped with two outs in the bottom of the third.

The Phillies had jumped out to a quick lead by scoring four against Martinez in the top of the third. Since they were 14-2 when putting up four or more runs, since they had Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler on the mound and since Wheeler had mowed down the first six batters he faced, they had to like their chances at that point.

Then the focus began to narrow.

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario led off the bottom of the inning with a walk and went to third when second baseman Santiago Espinal singled to right. Wheeler battled back, striking out catcher Luke Maille and centerfielder Will Benson, which brought budding superstar shortstop Elly De La Cruz to the plate.

Pitching carefully to the one guy in the Reds lineup you don’t want to beat you – “He can change the game,” manager Rob Thomson noted a few hours earlier – Wheeler ran a full count and eventually walked De La Cruz to load the bases.

Narrower. . .

The count went 3-2 to leftfielder Spencer Steer.

Narrower. . .

Steer fouled off a pitch. Then he fouled another, a twisting line drive that landed just foul.

And then it happened.

Wheeler centered a 95.8 mile per hour fastball at the bottom of the strike zone and Steer barreled it, launching a long drive to right. Off the bat, it looked as though it could have been a game-tying grand slam. If it stayed in play, all three runners would have scored since they were off with the pitch and De La Cruz can fly.

Instead, rightfielder Nick Castellanos raced back onto the warning track, leaped, reached and made the catch before banging into the wall.

Look, maybe the Phillies would have gone on to win regardless. But the fact is that Wheeler survived that 34-pitch inning, settled in after that and didn’t allow another hit. In the process, he became the second Phillies pitcher in the modern era to pitch six innings while allowing allow no runs and one hit in back-to-back starts. The other: Marvin Freeman in 1986. (What, you were thinking Steve Carlton? Curt Schilling? Robin Roberts? Jim Bunning? Cole Hamels? Good guesses. Incorrect, however.)

“It was a great catch,” Thomson said. “I don’t know if the game turns out different [if he doesn’t make it], but it was a great catch. It got Wheels out of that inning and we were close to him having too many pitches in that inning and having to go get him.

“And then we would have been in trouble. So that’s a big catch.”

Said Wheeler: “I was scared off the bat and watching him go back. But he knew where he was on the field and made a great catch. That was big. That saved me.”

Castellanos said coach Paco Figueroa had him stationed in and over, protecting against a flare single. “Then Steer took a great swing and I saw it go up,” he recounted. “I just did the best I could to get to beat it to a spot and make the play.”

He added that he wouldn’t much focus on contemplating how the game may have turned out differently, how the mood on the long flight to San Diego Thursday evening could have been dampened if he hadn’t made the play.

“I guess maybe when people come up after the game,” he explained. “But I think more so if I would have just missed it or whatever. Then it would wear on me. But by catching it, I feel like, ‘All right, I did my job.’ And then on to the next.”

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