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Zack Wheeler’s attack, Bryce Harper’s birthday ambush help Phillies jump on Diamondbacks in NLCS Game 1

PHILADELPHIA — No matter how it’s spelled, anyone named Zack (or Zac) indubitably grows up hearing the phrase “Zack (or Zac) Attack.” Nickname, exclamation, whatever. And in NLCS Game 1, Zack Wheeler and Zac Gallen each came out on the attack with their trademark fastballs.

One, however, got attacked back.

The game-swinging difference in Wheeler and the Philadelphia Phillies’ 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks was not in the planning or the strategy but purely in the execution — in the inches and fractions of seconds that take on epic proportions in the heightened state of the MLB playoffs.

Aces and Cy Young contenders, Wheeler and Gallen both rely on fastballs that are worthy of the trust. By Statcast’s estimation, they boasted two of MLB’s six most valuable four-seam fastballs among starters in 2023. And they both came out firing them on Monday, but Arizona’s Gallen ran into what has lately been an impossible task: Retiring Bryce Harper and the Phillies’ stars amid the spotlight, the roar and the swirling red towels of Citizens Bank Park.

The first pitch of the bottom of the first inning was a 92 mph four-seamer too close to the middle of the plate. Kyle Schwarber, who entered on a rough 4-for-25 stretch in this postseason, deposited it in the left-field seats at breathtaking speed (117 mph, to be exact).

After retiring Trea Turner, Gallen started off Harper — playing major-league baseball on his birthday for the first time— with another fastball, 93 mph and up. It also sailed over the wall, and as Harper rounded the bases and turned his fingers into pantomimed birthday candles, the Phillies had quickly turned Game 1 from a pitchers’ duel into something else entirely.

“I think they just ambushed him,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said of Gallen. “I think they came out ready to jump on his fastball. There’s no mystery that Zac fills up the zone. He has an aggressive fastball and aggressive mindset. They just counter-punched him.”

During the season, a campaign in which Gallen was one of only four pitchers to eclipse 200 innings, the Diamondbacks’ ace thrived by getting ahead in the count. He scored strikes on the first pitch in 66.4% of plate appearances, sixth-most among qualified starters. He showed confidence in that strong fastball and then worked off of it with a changeup and a cutter and a curveball, and sometimes a slider. Against Gallen, getting behind meant getting out.

So while Harper and Schwarber insisted afterward that the Phillies didn’t come out specifically targeting the fastball, they did intend to stay out of those dangerous deep counts.

“He relies on everything. Like, he just doesn’t have one good pitch. He has four good pitches,” Harper said. “As a whole, we didn’t want to miss pitches over the plate, and we were able to do that and do some damage.”

“Yeah, for us as an offense, in general, we’re not looking to take hitters’ pitches,” Schwarber said. “The biggest thing is trying to get him in the zone, and he is such a great pitcher. He has had such a great year, to where if you get him in the zone and you’re going to get a good swing, you don’t want to miss it.”

Game 1 quickly turned on those pitches in the zone, including a third fastball that the scorching-hot Nick Castellanos blasted to the opposite field. While Gallen undoubtedly wanted his pitches around the zone, Lovullo said postgame that the locations looked like mistakes from the typically sharp 28-year-old ace.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to throw where the location was,” Schwarber said, “but I was able to put a good swing on it.”

Peppering the strike zone and daring hitters to swing might sound risky — or perhaps like a fool’s errand — against hitters as good as the Phillies and as good as Harper, who is now batting .409 with four homers this postseason. But it’s also the route to dominance.

In the lead-up to Game 1, Wheeler recalled his time recovering from Tommy John surgery earlier in his career, time he spent studying contemporary greats such as Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. He was trying to glean “just how they attack hitters and attack the game, basically.” What he took away was their tendency to tackle hitters head on, to be the aggressors.

“They just go right after guys. They trust their stuff. They have the stuff to get guys out, but they trust it at the same time,” Wheeler said at the team’s workout Sunday. “Basically, ‘here it is, hit it if you can, and if you can’t hit it, it’s going to be well-located.’”

He threw down exactly that sort of challenge to the Diamondbacks on Monday. After Corbin Carroll notched a single on a broken-bat blooper to lead off the game, Wheeler retired 15 Arizona hitters in a row by pumping in fastballs — both four-seam and sinker. It was the physical manifestation of “hit it if you can.”

Mostly, they could not.

Wheeler, now 33, has staked a claim among the game’s elite pitching ranks since he joined the Phillies on a five-year, $118 million contract prior to 2020. His park-adjusted ERA- ranks eighth among qualified starters over those four seasons, and his innings total ranks fourth (higher than anyone ahead of him in the ERA- category). By FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Wheeler has been the most valuable hurler in the league since he first donned Phillies red.

What differentiated his success from Gallen’s stumbles in NLCS Game 1 was superior location and superior velocity. His four-seam and especially his sinker, a weapon against right-handers, were landing on the edges of the plate, busting bats and confounding instincts.

Zack Wheeler’s pitches in NLCS Game 1 against the Diamondbacks. (Baseball Savant)

He also has an edge in pure heat. It’s one he always has over Gallen, despite similar long-term results, but it provides Wheeler with more margin for error. He averaged 95.6 mph in Game 1, while Gallen was at 93.6 mph. Those two ticks matter. MLB hitters collectively batted .279 and slugged .495 against four-seamers between 92 and 94 mph in 2023, putting up numbers on par with likely MVP vote-getter Bobby Witt Jr. On four-seamers between 95 and 97 mph, they hit .239 and slugged .412, roughly the numbers of Hunter Renfroe, who was waived twice this season.

On this night, that difference was accentuated by Wheeler’s intensity and aggression. He threw 45 four-seamers and 11 sinkers, 56 of his 81 pitches. He got swings on 34 of them and induced whiffs on an astounding 41% of those.

“He’s obviously got electric stuff, but when he is commanding the baseball, it’s pretty nasty,” Schwarber said. “I’m happy to be on his team because I did not like facing that guy.”

Lovullo said he thought for a while that his D-backs lineup, which showed grit and surprising explosiveness in knocking out the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, might “weather the storm” against Wheeler, but they managed only two runs off him in six innings while facing a five-run deficit.

And the fury of his fastballs never stopped.

“It was just like, get up and go, here it comes. Whether it was two- or four-seam, it was just really, really aggressive stuff with his fastball,” Lovullo said. “Really didn’t get too much secondary stuff from what I remember.

“He beat us with his best pitch.”

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