Zack Wheeler's velocity encourages J.T. Realmuto, Joe Girardi in Phillies loss

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Phillies blow a lead but see some important signs from Zack Wheeler originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Phillies blew a three-run lead in another dispiriting loss that dropped them to 6-9 on the season, but they may look back at Saturday in a few months as the afternoon Zack Wheeler eased their early-season concerns.

Despite taking the loss, Wheeler's stuff was much sharper and all of his pitches were a tick or two higher on the radar gun.

Wheeler's fastball averaged 97.2 mph the last two seasons but was down to 94.9 in his first two starts of 2022 -- still a big number but far off his elite velocity of seasons past. On Saturday, his fastball was up to 95.9 and he hit 97 a few times.

"That was the best stuff we've seen from him this year," catcher J.T. Realmuto said after the Phillies' 5-3 loss. "It was just more crisp, more of what we saw from him last year. The ball had a little more life on it.

"I think just as much as anything, his last few starts it was command. His fastball, he wasn't able to throw it for strikes in to righties and hit his spots as well against lefties as he did today. Just seeing that command be back to normal is nice for him."

Wheeler is not all fastball, but he's a power pitcher reliant on his upper-90s heater. He consistently sat 98-99 early in games in 2020 and 2021 and that velocity was a major reason he had a 1.88 ERA in the first three innings of his 43 starts across those two seasons.

After an abnormal spring training in which Wheeler made no Grapefruit League starts and pitched only twice against Phillies minor-leaguers -- April 2 and April 7 -- he showed rust out of the gate. It was not unexpected given the shoulder soreness he experienced over the winter and the illness that slowed him in camp.

"To be honest, the drop in velo early on wasn't that surprising to me," Realmuto said. "I kind of expected it to come. I knew that he got a late start. I was playing catch with him during the lockout in the street in tennis shoes out front of my house. I knew that he was going to be behind. He wasn't able to build up properly. ... I know that as the season goes on, he's going to have it."

The Phillies staked Wheeler to a three-run lead thanks to an RBI double and sacrifice fly from Nick Castellanos, and an RBI single from Jean Segura after an Odubel Herrera triple. Wheeler's afternoon started with four scoreless innings and when the fifth inning began, he'd retired 10 in a row.

But things unraveled in the fifth inning for a variety of reasons. Two of the hits in the inning were solid -- a double by Hunter Renfroe and a line drive from Jace Peterson on a hanging, two-strike curveball. But Wheeler also dealt with rough luck -- he broke Christian Yelich's bat on a game-tying single -- and was not helped by his defense. In the inning, left fielder Kyle Schwarber had momentum but threw a 10-hopper to the plate in a situation where a good throw could have nailed the runner. And Realmuto threw a ball into center field on a stolen base attempt with runners on the corners, allowing the man on third to score.

Wheeler wasn't satisfied with the loss but was encouraged by how he pitched.

"It's not the result I wanted, but you've just got to take the good from it," he said. "I felt a lot better today, more in sync. I made some adjustments in the last bullpen (session) and they showed up in the game. It's one of those outings you've got to take the good from.

"I'm still building up, just getting stronger and getting into the swing of things. They did a nice job but I also made some good pitches. I think that's why it's one of those outings that you take the good from. Obviously not the result I wanted, but I'm just trying to build myself up and get that confidence rolling."

When Wheeler led the league in innings and strikeouts last season, he generated a swinging strike on 12.5 percent of his fastballs -- one of every eight. In his first two starts this year, he threw 73 fastballs and hitters swung and missed just twice.

On Saturday, the Brewers swung through eight of Wheeler's 47 fastballs.

"Big improvement," manager Joe Girardi said. "I think we all saw where his stuff was today. It's unfortunate that the fifth inning got away from him a little bit because I thought he was throwing the ball really well today. His sinker was much better today. I thought his cutter was effective in to left-handed hitters. Pretty much almost everything."

Wheeler's next start will be Thursday afternoon against the Rockies in the finale of the Phillies' seven-game homestand. The Phils have played lackluster baseball for nearly two weeks, losing eight of 11 after beginning the season 3-1. They look to avoid a fourth straight series loss on Sunday night when Aaron Nola opposes left-hander Eric Lauer.