Pa Jake Mintz
Posted by FOX Sports MLB

PHILADELPHIA — On the morning of Dec. 6, 2020, in the dead of baseball winter, the news flowed outside what Philadelphia Phillies listened to proposals on Zack Wheeler.

The news was disconcerting. Phillies had signed Wheeler in free agency just the offseason before, throwing the then-30-year-old five years and $118 million. Up until that point in his career, Wheeler was a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Phyllis thought he might be more than that. In Wheeler’s first year with the team, he proved them right, posting a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts.

But according to ESPN reports, the fanless COVID campaign has dealt a major blow to the organization’s finances, prompting them to take a pay cut. As a result, everyone with a big contract, except Bryce Harper reportedly on the shopping block. That included Wheeler … until it did.

Hours after the initial report surfaced, club owner John Middleton set the record straight: The Phillies had absolutely zero intention of dealing Wheeler.

“I wouldn’t trade him for Babe Ruth,” Middleton announced.

He remained true to his word. Wheeler was not traded for Baby or anyone else. That’s good too. Since then, Wheeler has become one of the best pitchers in baseball, a true ace, a pitcher who can take you down.

And now, three years after the Phillies made him the highest-paid pitcher in franchise history, two years after Middleton rated him higher than “The Big Bambino,” and a year after dethroning Cy Young for second place, Wheeler got the opportunity of a lifetime: To pitch his club to the World Series.

Zach Wheeler talks to Ken Rosenthal about his performance in Game 1

In a postgame NLCS Game 1 interview with Ken Rosenthal, Zach Wheeler talks about how he beat the San Diego Padres.

Drafted out of Georgia High School Giants in 2009, the highly touted prospect was sent to Metz in exchange for Carlos Beltran at the 2011 deadline. Wheeler made his debut with the Queens in 2013, but has not had much success in his first two seasons in the big leagues. Then the inevitable: Like so many before and since, Wheeler’s elbow ligament tore, leading to Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2015.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. While Wheeler battled through Groundhog Day rehabbing his elbow at the Mets’ complex in Port St. Lucie, his teammates had the season of their lives. The 2015 Mets became the 2015 Mets™, and Wheeler watched it all while sitting uncomfortably on the couch while the Mets turned down his request to join the team on an extended postseason. When his contemporaries became October icons, pitching the Mets to the Fall Classic, Wheeler had no choice but to watch from home.

“I’ve got to be there,” Wheeler remembers thinking to himself that fall as his friends made their dream come true. “It must be me.”

Things got worse from there. Wheeler’s elbow did not heal as expected. The road back was bumpier than anticipated. He was originally slated to return at some point during the 2016 season, but surgery in April to remove a stitch that failed to dissolve after the initial surgery pushed his schedule back several months.

Then, in his first rehab outing at the Mets complex, Wheeler suffered a sprained flexor tendon that required injections and more time off the mound. Eventually, the Mets shut him down for the season. By the time he returned to the MLB, he had missed two full years. He will fight inefficiency for another.

But during his time away from the game, Wheeler learned something invaluable: how to pitch.

“I did nothing the whole time,” he recalls. “If there was a game, I would try to watch.”

Unable to throw a baseball, Wheeler studied those who could. He was setting himself up for the best: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom. From hundreds of miles away, he noticed how much the world’s best pitchers trusted their stuff. They didn’t shy away from hitters and they didn’t bite the edges. They attacked, they were fearless, they worked deep into the game.

Whenever his arm finally heals, Wheeler decided, he intends to be that dude.

“He was a pitcher earlier in his career,” Phillies manager Kevin Long told FOX Sports. “You knew at some point in the beginning he would tire and you would be able to get to him. Not anymore.”

These days, Wheeler is Hoss, Ace, Horse. He turned into one of the pitchers he watched on TV.

“He’ll pounce on you and attack you no matter what,” – Trapper JT Realmuto said. “It doesn’t matter if Barry Bonds gets in there. He tries to strike first and outrun you. There are a lot of pitchers with really good stuff who don’t necessarily have that mentality.”

This approach is reflected in the numbers. In 2014, the year before his elbow gave out, Wheeler was 111th among 112 pitchers (150 innings) with a first-inning strikeout rate of 54.4%. In his second Cy Young season in 2021, he finished eighth at 66.8%. This is how aces are served.

It helps that his arsenal is more stocked than the Food Network’s pantry. A four-seam hyperspeed machine is around 96 and has a bigger rise than a can of baking powder. This fastball pairs perfectly with a bowling ball sinker and a 90s slider dirtier than the bottom of a tractor. There’s also a curveball that he can use to steal strikes early in the count or use as a lower zone weapon against lefties.

“He has four or five innings. He can rule everybody, all the time,” said his rotation partner. Aaron Nola said. “It’s impressive. That’s what makes it elite.”

A combination of possessions and a willingness to use them aggressively elevated Wheeler to elite status. Since the start of 2020, he has the seventh-lowest batting average in baseball. He has allowed just three earned runs in 19 1/3 innings this postseason, all of which came in the sixth inning of NLDS Game 2, after Rhys Hoskins couldn’t stop a two-run groundball.

If Hoskins plays like this, Wheeler goes scoreless in the postseason and people start to debate where his October exploits rank in playoff history.

It could happen either way if everything goes according to plan.

Fourteen years ago, another Phillies ace threw a gem in NLCS Game 5 to send his club to the World Series. Cole Hamels still drinks for free in this town.

incl Sunday afternoonhe has first home start this postseason, Wheeler will look to repeat those heroics. He has the potential to be the stuff legends are made of: the ace who dominates in front of a messy, powder keg, the crowd that carries his team to the World Series.

There is no one who wants the Phillies to take the ball. This is what Middleton hacked the piggy bank for. That’s why he didn’t trade Wheeler for Root.

Jake Mintz, Louder Half @Cespede’s BBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York, so he’s been single for most of October. When he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mint.

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