CHICAGO — It was the kind of afternoon the Phillies envisioned when they revamped their bullpen this winter.
Zack Wheeler was 94 pitches in five innings and faced a back strain during a laborious third that saw the White Sox collect six straight hits.
He came out on top and the Phillies bullpen kept him right there. Gregory Soto, Craig Kimbrel, Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado struck out all 12 batters they faced with two strikeouts each inning in the Phils’ most dominant bullpen effort of the young season.
The Phillies defeated the White Sox, 7-4, in Game 1 of a guaranteed rate field doubleheader.
“It’s clearly dominance,” said manager Rob Thomson. “From Soto to Kimbrel to Seranthony and Alvarado, no rides, pounding the area, just high quality stuff.”
Alvarado pitched the ninth inning for his first save of the year, but Thomson said, as usual, it was matchup-based. That doesn’t mean Alvarado is now the closest. The White Sox’s best batsman off the bench was left-handed hitter Gavin Sheets, and if Alvarado had faced more than three hitters, he should have faced left-hander Andrew Benintendi.
Of course, it would have been difficult for Thomson to predict in the sixth inning that Soto, Kimbrel and Dominguez would score nine in a row to allow Alvarado to have that pocket of the lineup. But with Alvarado, it doesn’t really matter.
“Just because of the clashes,” Thomson said. “We wanted Craig at the top of the order and then Seranthony in the middle. We can use Alvarado wherever we want, he’s so dominant.”
Alvarado might justifiably be the best reliever in baseball right now. He has a 1.22 ERA in his last 48 appearances with 82 strikeouts and 12 walks. His opponents have been totally overwhelmed this season. Control issues seem to be a thing of the past. He struck out 18 of 26 batters he faced in 2023 without a walk.
Soto has settled in since having a few erratic outings in the first week of the season. He has gone 5⅔ innings without allowing a hit or an earned run in his last six appearances.
The Phillies gave Wheeler a 3-0 lead in the first inning by jumping over Lance Lynn. Bryson Stott led the game with a single to set a Phillies record with a 17-game hitting streak to start a season. The Phillies had three more runs in the inning, including Alec Bohm’s two-run hit with two outs.
The Phils scored six of their seven points with two outs. Josh Harrison had his best day as a Phillie with a two-run single in the third inning and a two-run homer in the seventh that served as much-needed insurance.
“Huge,” Thomson said. “Four RBIs, three hits, a homer, a big homer to give us some distance. He played really well.”
Despite the big day, Harrison was not in the Game 2 lineup. The Phillies started Bohm at third base with Kody Clemens early. JT Realmuto also had Game 2 after picking up two hits earlier in the day.
Wheeler’s back tightness is worth watching. He received back treatment after round three and says it relieved the pressure. The White Sox have made six of their last 11 pitches, although Wheeler’s fastball speed dropped to 92-93 mph in his last inning. He entered the day with an average of 96.5.
“There were a few things,” he said. “My drive wasn’t the best today. My back started to tighten during this longer run. It was a grind. I just figured it out and it was good to go after that. Just a lot of soft touch today. One of those days when you make your pitches but they put the bat on the ball.”
The White Sox’s biggest hit against Wheeler was Luis Robert’s brace. He came on a fastball right in the middle but Robert didn’t hit it well, sending him into shallow right field.
“It certainly wasn’t due to significant exit speed,” Thomson said. “He just got soaked to death and that made his throw count.”
Wheeler was disappointed to go only five innings, and the Phillies remain one of only four in the majors without a starting pitcher record and one out in the seventh. It’s a little easier to accept when the top four relievers are as locked in as they were Tuesday afternoon.
“Soto looks good, Alvy is what he is now, it’s great fun to have those guys behind me,” Wheeler said. “You can just give the ball and feel comfortable giving it to these guys. Now is the time for us starters to take some of the pressure off them and go deeper into the games.”