Zack Wheeler's 'incredible' start scuttled by a fumble in the red zone originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Zack Wheeler was not the first Phillies pitcher this season to hand a lead to the bullpen and watch it vanish in what seemed like a blink of an eye.
But he was the first Phillies pitcher to see his gem scuttled by a fumble in the red zone.
And he was the first Phillies pitcher to field a postgame question from a reporter that went something like this:
"I googled nail hardener and came up with a polish. I wanted to make sure I have it right."
Wheeler made what should have been a triumphant return to the Phillies rotation Wednesday night. After missing his previous start because of a ripped fingernail on his right middle finger, and at one point fearing that his season might be over, he pitched 7⅓ innings against the New York Mets and exited with a one-run lead only to see the bullpen crumble under the weight of a two-out walk in the eighth and a balk in the ninth.
"It's baseball," Wheeler said a few moments after the Mets rallied for a 5-4 win. "Stuff is going to happen. I can only control what I can control."
Wheeler could not control a two-out walk that Adam Morgan issued in the eighth. That opened the door for J.D. Davis' two-out, game-tying double off the right-field wall. The ball appeared catchable, but Adam Haseley, playing right field while Bryce Harper served as the DH, could not make a big play.
An inning later, the Mets rallied to take the lead against Hector Neris after the Phillies reliever dropped the ball - just dropped it - while on the rubber. The resulting balk allowed the go-ahead run to move into scoring position.
For manager Joe Girardi, it was just another night with baseball's worst bullpen.
"That's something you see maybe once a year somewhere and unfortunately it happened to us," Girardi said of Neris' fumble. "It changed the complexion of that inning and he probably got flustered by it. It's something you can't do.
"These guys are doing the best they can, they're working, trying to fix it. It's frustrating. But eventually, you've got to believe it will turn."
Phillies management believed it would turn with four additions at the trade deadline.
Phillies relievers have a 7.05 ERA for the season - 7.11 since the trade deadline.
Despite these terrible numbers, Girardi still trusted that unit enough to pull Wheeler with one out in the eighth. Wheeler was at 95 pitches.
Girardi said he pulled Wheeler because the top of the order was coming up and it had hit Wheeler hard in earlier at-bats. Wheeler and Girardi talked about the move in the dugout before the inning.
"Like I always say, it's Joe's call," Wheeler said. "I'm not going to second-guess him. He's been around a long time."
If there was one bit of good news it was that Wheeler came back healthy and dealing. His injured fingernail was still black and blue. He had it glued down with nail hardener.
"Incredible," Girardi said. "You can't imagine the pain he was in eight or nine days ago, what it looked like, the swelling, the inflammation. All the things the training staff and Zack had to do to make this start. I wouldn't say he was 100 percent, but he gave us everything he had. Those are the type of people you want on your team."
Making Wednesday night's loss sting even more was that the Phillies had built an early 3-0 lead against Jacob deGrom, possibly the best pitcher in baseball. The Phils went up 4-0 in the third but couldn't get the ball into the end zone after that.
The loss left the Phils at 24-24 with 12 games to play. They are tied for the final NL playoff spot with the San Francisco Giants. There's plenty of time to lock up a playoff spot, but also plenty of time to kick it all away and do the unthinkable - fail to make an eight-team postseason field with a payroll pushing $208 million.
Wheeler will have two starts remaining. Aaron Nola has three, including Thursday night against the Mets. The rest of the rotation is a crapshoot and you know what the bullpen is. There's much intrigue surrounding these final days of the season, the kind of inglorious intrigue that comes with waiting to see what will go wrong next, but intrigue nonetheless.