How the Phillies have gone 23 days without losing consecutive games

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PHILADELPHIA — Something bothered Zack Wheeler last summer. He was convinced the Washington Nationals had or they solved his pitch tendencies or picked up a tell. Almost a quarter of the earned runs Wheeler allowed in 2023 were to Washington. He had a 7.48 ERA in four starts against them. It drove him nuts.

Wheeler typically lives at the top of the zone with his four-seam fastball. So, in Friday’s 4-2 Philadelphia Phillies win, he abandoned his sinker and threw more four-seamers down in the zone.

“That’s not necessarily in the scouting report that I throw a lot of fastballs down,” Wheeler said. “So, I think, that was playing.”

Wheeler did not wink or smile. He did not speak as if another strong 7 1/3 innings thrilled him. But it was satisfying — like most nights in this Phillies season. It often looks like they can do whatever they want. They can plot a different path to beating someone.

The Phillies have not lost consecutive games in 23 days. It’s the longest they have gone without a two-game losing streak since July 2011. They have done it by scoring early — they lead the majors with 101 runs scored in the first three innings — and pitching well with leads. It is an indisputable formula for success.

“It just puts people on their heels right away, you know?” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “As you get later into the game, I think offenses start to get a little antsy. They start swinging early, trying to do too much. So it’s always good to get out front early, and then shut them down.”

It’s the sort of formula that creates memorable summers. It did not rain Friday, a win in itself, and people packed into Citizens Bank Park for their Bryson Stott bobbleheads and a glimpse of the team with the best record in baseball. The game was over in 2 hours and 15 minutes. The sold-out crowd would have stayed longer. They will be back when it’s even warmer.

It has that feeling.

It’s not as if the Phillies are toying with their opponents. They have soared without always playing their best baseball. They cannot point to something from the first seven weeks that is totally unsustainable. They have seen good and bad from every player on the roster.

Wheeler, who has a 2.52 ERA in 60 2/3 innings, has not been happy with a few of his outings. He’s walking more batters than he should. He issued two four-pitch walks in the second inning Friday. One of them scored. But Wheeler pitched into the eighth on a night when the Phillies wanted to rest some relievers so they’d be available for the weekend.

He threw harder — almost 2 mph harder on average with his four-seam fastball. He had more juice behind all of his pitches.

“It’s a little warmer out, so that definitely helps,” Wheeler said. “And, I don’t know, maybe I just feel a little better with what I’m doing out there.”

“I thought,” Thomson said, “his stuff was as good as I’ve seen all year.”

Wheeler entered the season with a stated goal of being better against lefties. It’s why he is throwing a splitter. Washington loaded its lineup with left-handed hitters. Wheeler silenced them — except for back-to-back doubles by CJ Abrams and Eddie Rosario in the fifth inning. The Rosario double was a ball that a good right fielder snares. Nick Castellanos made a sliding attempt and failed.

After that, Wheeler retired the last seven batters he faced.

“He’s as electric as it gets,” outfielder Brandon Marsh said.

It’s odd to think Wheeler has pitched like he has without his best fastball, but it’s true. Hitters entered this start with a .380 slugging percentage against Wheeler’s four-seam fastball. He has pitched below that rate in five of the past six seasons.

Related: Wheeler’s 94.6 mph average four-seam velocity in 2024 was the lowest it’s been in his career. He has attempted to pace himself. He sat 96 mph on Friday.

“Anytime you throw a little harder, maybe it’s a foul ball instead of a hard hit,” Wheeler said. “A swing-and-miss instead of a foul ball. Throwing harder definitely helps, but it’s not everything, obviously.”

Did he see that reflected in the swings the Nationals took?

“I feel like my fastball played a little better today,” Wheeler said. “Even when it started to drop down a little bit. I just felt more in rhythm and behind the ball. It was coming out clean.”

The crowd was so large that long lines formed to enter the ballpark. It meant that many people were not in their seats when Alec Bohm cracked a run-scoring double in the first inning to set a familiar tone. The Phillies scored all of their runs in the first three innings.

An early lead is almost inevitable in 2024. It feels like the team has adopted that persona.

“I hope so,” Marsh said. “I really hope so. … You get some runs early in the game, and we got a good chance. I really hope that’s the case for the Phils.”

No one is looking ahead. Not yet. But the math that comes as a result of a 32-14 start is jarring. The Phillies could play .500 for the remainder of the season and reach 90 wins — their total from a season ago. They have loftier sights in 2024. And, with every nine-inning slice of evidence, they can convince even the most skeptical onlookers.

(Photo of Zack Wheeler: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

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