Wheeler building block for future
Pitcher coming into his own after overcoming injuries
CARY, N.C. -- Phil Wheeler walked off the mound and allowed himself one fleeting thought.
The University of Indianapolis junior had just held Rockhurst hitless in the first inning of their May 12 matchup in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament, so a no-hitter was at least plausible. Wheeler had never pitched one before, but he almost always thought about it. A no-no. No bloopers just out of the reach of the shortstop, no seeing-eye singles up the middle.
Inning by inning, Rockhurst’s batters came to the plate and inning by inning, most marched right back to the dugout without getting on base. By the middle of the fifth inning, the notion that a no-hitter might finally become a reality began to sink in.
“I had a couple of balls hit real hard,” Wheeler said Tuesday, hours before Indy’s game against St. Mary’s in the NCAA Division II baseball championship. “I thought, ‘Wow, those really could’ve broken it up.’ Once I got out of that fifth inning, I thought to myself, ‘One inning at a time. You can get through this, and that’ll be it. You can throw your no-hitter.’”
Although Rockhurst sported four first-team all-conference players in its lineup, Wheeler kept up the pressure to close out his coveted no-hitter with a ground-ball out, second to first. It was the first no-hitter by a Greyhounds pitcher since future major-leaguer Jim Crowell turned the trick in 1995.
“It was my first no-hitter, so that was exciting in itself,” said Wheeler, a native of Decatur, Ill. “Really, just to throw up a zero every inning was really important to the team. I’m just glad I could do it and have the opportunity.”
Wheeler had been close to a no-hitter once before, in a high-school regional championship game. He had a perfect game going in the sixth inning, but saw it broken up by throwing a curve ball to a kid who shouldn’t have been able to touch it. “But he sure did, and it dribbled over the middle of the diamond,” Wheeler said, the memory still fresh. It was the only hit Wheeler gave up in the victory.
Against Rockhurst, Wheeler wound up throwing 136 pitches. He walked six, but after figuring out that they came from a hitch in the mechanics of his windup, he threw from the stretch the rest of the way. Wheeler struck out 11, the only pitcher in the Midwest Region other than senior teammate Donovan Drake to reach double digits this season.
“I was tired, and definitely starting to cramp up in my legs,” Wheeler said. “Not throwing more than four innings in the whole entire year really had its affect on me there, but I’ve always been known to do better in the long runs. I think just from having a lot of complete games in high school and the past few years really helped out with my composure and the physical affect on me.”
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It was, by far, his longest stint of the season for Indy -- and that’s the rest of the story. Elbow problems coming into the season prevented him from making a serious run at making the Greyhounds' starting rotation. Once he got past the issue, however, the Indy pitching staff was already well-stocked with great arms.
The elbow problem and a subsequent hamstring injury limited Wheeler to just 22 1/3 innings all season. But then, not only did Wheeler throw the no-hitter against Rockhurst May 12, he came back to pitch six innings of one-run ball against the very same team in the Midwest regional finals eight days later.
“I’ve never been one to really speak up, so I just played my role as it came to me,” said Wheeler, who throws primarily a slider and fastball, with a changeup finally working its magic in the second game against Rockhurst. “I didn’t have any room to step up and say, ‘Hey, I need a spot,’ because everyone was doing their job. I was satisfied with what everyone else was doing.”
For coaches at any level of baseball, having too much pitching is a good problem to have. That’s where Indy head coach Gary Vaught finds himself.
“When we signed Phil from junior college, we felt like he’d be a weekend starter for us,” said Vaught, who is in his 18th season at the helm of the Greyhounds. “But then he got hurt. His arm was bothering him a little bit, and then he had a hamstring pull, so we kind of pulled him out.
“But all along, the staff had said for us to get to the championship, he was going to have to win some big games for us. He’s done that twice now. Everybody said the no-hitter was unbelievable, but I’ll tell you what. How he threw at the regional tournament, when he came in and just shut them down, was another outstanding performance.”
As well as Indy’s hurlers have performed this season, Vaught will lose only seniors Drake and JaVaun West from his pitching staff at the end of the year. Look for Wheeler to play a role next season, all season.
“Phil’s a unique kid,” Vaught said. “Boy, this is a pretty stout statement, but you put all of our athletes out there, Phil Wheeler is probably the best athlete on the field. He can run. He punts a football. He can throw one. He can jump. As a matter of fact, that’s how he got a hamstring injury. When he was starting to throw real well, he was seeing how fast he could run a 60[-yard dash] in our indoor facility and popped his hamstring.
“He’s a hyper young man, but he’s a great young man. Next year, we’ll be building our staff around him and Alex Wood and Hugo Lalonde.”
That’s not a bad nucleus, not a bad one at all.