Phillies set tone against Dodgers, and it all began with Zack Wheeler vs. Shohei Ohtani


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PHILADELPHIA — Rafael Marchán, making his 29th career big-league start at catcher, was not going to overthink it. No chance. This game, a 10-1 Philadelphia Phillies drubbing of the Los Angeles Dodgers, featured the two best teams in the National League and it began with Zack Wheeler against Shohei Ohtani — maybe the best pitcher and hitter in the sport. This is how the Phillies would remind everyone why they are here.

Marchán called for a first-pitch fastball. Ohtani fouled back 97 mph on the outer edge. Marchán called for another fastball, up and in. Ohtani whiffed at it.

“When I saw the first two, he’s throwing it,” Marchán said. “We’re going to throw another one.”

Wheeler threw 98 mph, a little further up and in to Ohtani, and the star slugger swung and missed. Three pitches, three fastballs — and the last one was the hardest pitch Wheeler threw all night.

It set a tone.

“Sure,” Wheeler said.

Others noticed. The 59-32 Phillies have a style: Here is our best, do what you can with it. They have scored 118 more runs than they have allowed. They have, for much of this season, bulldozed opponents by leaning on their strengths. Wheeler embodies it. He does not emote. He is an elite athlete who loves junk food. He has mastered new breaking balls, but he is here because of his riding fastball.

“He’s not scared,” Alec Bohm said. “I don’t think it really matters to Wheels who it is. He just trusts his stuff.”

Marchán shook his head and smiled.

“He was fire,” Marchán said.

Wheeler threw only 76 pitches, his fewest of the season, because he felt back tightness. The Phillies were unconcerned afterward; Wheeler said he expects to start Sunday. Manager Rob Thomson echoed that. Bohm said he was unaware something had even happened to Wheeler. It was hot. The Phillies had a huge lead. Wheeler wasn’t needed.

It’s funny. There was supposed to be a postseason vibe to this series. All three games are nationally televised. Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber returned to the Phillies lineup after 10-day absences. But, by the fifth inning, both teams were pulling their stars from the lopsided game. At one point, the umpire crew had to call New York to see if the Dodgers could use a position player — Kiké Hernández — to pitch in the seventh inning.

Both of these teams know there are greater conquests to come. The Dodgers are missing key players. The Phillies are trying to keep everyone healthy for the long haul.

Wheeler admitted his back has bothered him for one or two starts now. He had been receiving treatment for it. The Phillies have a conservative medical staff and, if there was any risk, they would have told Wheeler he could not pitch.

They will re-evaluate him on Wednesday. Thomson described Wheeler’s removal as “precautionary.” The last pitch Wheeler threw was a 96 mph fastball to Freddie Freeman, who pounded it into the ground for a routine out. The back did not appear to affect Wheeler, but he said something anyway.

He had shown the Dodgers some of his best.

“Just playing it safe,” Wheeler said.

If Wheeler has to go on the injured list, he cannot return until July 26. The Phillies could just skip Wheeler without putting him on the injured list. They have already made one change to their rotation before the All-Star break. Tyler Phillips will slide into the rotation for Saturday’s game against the Oakland A’s. That bumps Michael Mercado to the bullpen — for now.

“This was the plan from the beginning because he doesn’t have that many innings on him,” Thomson said.

Most rival evaluators view Mercado as a reliever, and he’ll have a chance in that role. If Wheeler cannot go Sunday, the Phillies could hold Mercado back and start him.

Phillips, who made an impression when he struck out seven Atlanta Braves in his four-inning debut as a reliever over the weekend, has a chance to enter the equation. The Phillies will need a sixth starter in August when they’ll want to provide extra rest for everyone else.

Taijuan Walker, all of a sudden, has become important again. He will throw a bullpen session for the first time Wednesday afternoon, then expects to face hitters Saturday in a simulated situation. He is not an option until after the All-Star break. The Phillies will need him.

Wheeler lowered his ERA to 2.70 with five strong innings. He shrugged afterward.

“Velo wasn’t necessarily there,” Wheeler said. “I mean, it was there some, but wasn’t there some. I feel like I was kind of just cruising, but when I needed to reach back I could.”

Like that first at-bat. Bohm watched from third base and all he could think about was the time three years ago when Wheeler faced Schwarber. It was June 2021 when Schwarber was on an incredible power binge with the Washington Nationals. Wheeler started Schwarber with a fastball.

“There goes Wheels,” Bohm said. “He just challenges him. He hits it foul.”

It went 384 feet. But it was foul.

Wheeler threw Schwarber two cutters and a curveball. Schwarber struck out. It’s one thing for a pitcher to have blind trust in his stuff; it’s another to have the stuff that justifies that mindset.

“Exactly,” Bohm said. “And he makes the pitch. No matter who you are. Obviously, guys are going to get him and all that whatever. But a lot of guys probably start (Ohtani) off with a curveball and try to just dance around him there.”

Or a curveball once he jumped to an 0-2 count against Ohtani. Nope.

“That’s Wheels,” Bohm said. “He’s a dog up there. It’s cool.”

Maybe he’ll start on Sunday. Maybe he won’t. No one was worried about it being a serious issue. The Phillies have earned this right — the bigger picture is more important than anything else. They’re going to play in October. They know what it feels like to pit their best against the most formidable opponents.

It’s daunting until it isn’t.

“Just attack,” Marchán said. “With Wheeler’s stuff, he’s got a little bit of an advantage. He’s one of the best, too.”

(Photo of Zack Wheeler: Bill Streicher / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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