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Phillies’ Zack Wheeler gets back on track after a couple of rough spring starts

Zack Wheeler gets back on track after a couple of rough spring starts originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

With just two tune-up outings left before the regular season, Zack Wheeler got back on track Thursday night with a strong start in Lakeland against the Tigers.

Wheeler pitched 4⅓ innings and allowed one run, striking out five. He threw 66 pitches in a 10-1 Phillies win.

Wheeler had struggled his last two times out, allowing 10 runs in 4⅓ innings to the Pirates and Blue Jays. He gave up two homers in three innings against Pittsburgh in his start prior to Thursday but his velocity was pretty much normal.

Against the Tigers, Wheeler hit 97 mph twice and threw 14 of his 38 fastballs/sinkers at least 96. His fastball averaged 96.1 mph last season compared to 97.3 in 2021.

Wheeler will start twice more before the regular season begins — likely next Wednesday against the Rays and then in one of the Phillies’ final two games in Florida against the Blue Jays. It looks like his regular-season debut will come on April 1 in Texas in the Phillies’ second game of the year. Aaron Nola has been lined up all spring to start on opening day March 29.

Wheeler’s very first fastball of the spring was 97 mph, a good sign after he dealt with fatigue at the tail end of the Phillies’ 2022 playoff run. He’s been a workhorse since signing with the Phils prior to 2020. He pitched a league-leading 213⅓ innings in 2021 and 188⅔ last year between the regular season and playoffs.

Wheeler missed a month from late August through late September last season with right forearm tendinitis but still ended up with a heavy workload. He has a 2.82 ERA in 69 regular-season starts with the Phillies and has averaged 6⅓ innings, one of the highest marks in all of baseball. He ranks fourth in the majors in innings pitched the last five seasons, behind only Nola, Gerrit Cole and Jose Berrios. Including the playoffs, he’s been above 180 innings in each of the last four non-COVID-shortened seasons.

Nola, Wheeler, Taijuan Walker and Bailey Falter will be part of the Phillies’ season-opening rotation. Top prospect Andrew Painter is rehabbing a UCL sprain in his right elbow and won’t pick up a ball for another two weeks. Ranger Suarez left the World Baseball Classic early with a minor forearm issue but sounds like he’s on the mend and shouldn’t miss too much time. It is unclear at this point whether Suarez will be ready to take his first turn through the rotation. Returning to make his second start might be more realistic just given the time crunch. If Suarez is unable to start the fifth or sixth games of the regular season, the next man up would be left-hander Michael Plassmeyer, who has pitched seven scoreless innings in four appearances (three starts) this spring.