Zack Wheeler‘s final line in last night’s 8-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves was ugly, to say the least. The Georgia native allowed six earned runs on eight hits and four walks, leaving with two outs in the sixth inning after cruising through the first three innings. His ERA and WHIP rose from 4.57 and 1.3801 to 4.98 and 1.4502, respectively, and is now 2-5 on the season.
In some respects, the ends justified the means, especially looking at Wheeler’s performance in the sixth frame alone. The righty allowed a leadoff home run to Freddie Freeman on a first-pitch slider that hung just a tad too snugly along the inside corner, immediately erasing a 2-1 lead.
Wheeler faintly exited 27 pitches later, having allowed three singles and two walks to promptly dig his team into a 3-2 hole while leaving Paul Sewald to try his hand at lefty Ozzie Albies with the bags juiced and two outs. Albies hit a grand slam to turn a bases-loaded jam into a five-run deficit, mercifully lifting Wheeler off the hook and subsequently flushing his evening down the drain.
Just 14 of these final 27 pitches came in as strikes, and Wheeler’s fastball, after topping out at 99 mph in the first inning (the hardest he’s thrown since 2014), sat just 94-95 his third time through the order. His final two batters, Charlie Culberson and Preston Tucker (eighth and ninth in the order, respectively), saw a combined 11 pitches – nine of which were fastballs – and furthermore, only two of which registered as strikes. In terms of his chances to work out of trouble, Wheeler pitched on a leash more forgiving than usual, working to 100 pitches. Nonetheless, he very obviously ran out of steam, even admitting himself after the game that he “got a little tired out there.”
With that said, however, Wheeler’s first five innings didn’t deviate a whole lot from the standard he had established dating back to May 22nd. Boasting a 4.8 K/BB ratio and 2.54 FIP over his previous four starts, Zack followed the narrative by bursting out of the gates across his first three innings. He worked around a Dansby Swanson double in the bottom of the first by striking out Freeman with a perfectly-spotted 99 mph fastball and quickly retired Nick Markakis with a 94 mph slider that bumbled down to first for an inning-ending putout.
Wheeler put away six of his next seven hitters, ending the third inning at just 38 total pitches with two strikeouts to counter two baserunners allowed. After a walk and two bloop singles loaded the bases and prompted a mound visit at the start of the fourth inning, Wheeler responded by inducing a 1-2-5 double play and jamming Ender Inciarte with an inside fastball. Unfortunately, Inciarte’s weak contact found a home in shallow left field – just out of the reach of Amed Rosario – bringing home Atlanta’s first run.
After a clean 12-pitch fifth, Wheeler hit the wall in the sixth inning, but not exactly to a degree that warranted six earned runs souring the box score. Although Braves hitters definitely made their share of loud contact against him, it was again Inciarte – this time with two outs – who dumped yet another parachute into the same spot in the outfield to give the Braves a 3-2 lead. Minutes later, Inciarte had stolen second on a throw from Devin Mesoraco that, although on target, was ultimately mishandled by Asdrubal Cabrera across the diamond, prolonging the inning.
Under different circumstances, some further beyond Wheeler’s control than others, the righty almost definitely would have gotten out of the sixth inning under his own jurisdiction, and probably would have been credited with his seventh quality start of the year, a mark tied for second on the team, up there with – you guessed it – Jacob deGrom (nine) and Noah Syndergaard (seven).
Of course, endurance is a virtue, and losing five miles per hour on your fastball shouldn’t go unpunished. Even so, Wheeler hit a lot of spots fairly well, even as things began to slow down. Soft hits, weak relief, and (again, albeit to a lesser extent) some shoddy run support perfectly collided to inflate a losing start into a nightmare. Three of the runs charged to Wheeler scored on a pitch thrown by Paul Sewald, while two more scored on masterfully dumped base hits.