A tale of two 'pens: Phils' relievers stand tall in G1

Relief corps in contrast as Thomson gets aggressive while Baker sticks with Verlander

October 29th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Astros manager Dusty Baker has the deepest pitching staff in the Majors at his disposal, with such an embarrassing wealth of riches that he has had experienced and effective arms sitting on the shelf this postseason, metaphorically gathering dust. In the other dugout, Phillies skipper Rob Thomson’s pitching depth hangs by a thread.

But you wouldn’t have been able to tell that contrast from how each deployed his best weapons in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday at Minute Maid Park. Thomson was the one to use his bullpen with aggression and urgency, starting by employing José Alvarado in the fifth inning, which energized his team and proved a decisive factor in Philadelphia’s 6-5 victory in 10 innings -- and played in stark contrast to Baker’s reliance on a shaky Justin Verlander.

"I trust anything that man does," Nick Castellanos said of Thomson. "That's just what he decided to do and it worked. He has the respect and support of all the guys on the diamond."

"Thomson has just been so nails, so confident with every move that he's made," Rhys Hoskins added. "Anything that this guy does at this point just feels like the right button."

Though the Phillies have effectively operated this postseason with three firm starting pitchers and a small cadre of high-leverage relievers, Thomson immediately deployed one of his biggest bullpen arms in the fifth inning, summoning Alvarado to face Yordan Alvarez instead of allowing starter Aaron Nola to match up for a third time against Houston’s most fearsome slugger.

That paid off when Alvarado retired Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker in order across the fifth and sixth, neutralizing the Astros’ two premier lefties and preserving a tie game.

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“When the game starts, I say all the time to Thomson, 'Hey, I'm ready if you need me. Call me. I'm ready,'" Alvarado said.

After the Phillies got four outs from Zach Eflin to span the sixth and seventh, Thomson made another aggressive move, summoning possible Game 3 starter Ranger Suárez for the next matchup against Alvarez. That, too, proved effective, with Suárez striking out Alvarez and, an inning later, retiring Alex Bregman before exiting after a Tucker single to bridge the gap to Seranthony Domínguez in the eighth and ninth.

David Robertson kept Houston at bay in the 10th to preserve the win and complete 5 2/3 scoreless bullpen innings.

That might end up impacting the Phillies’ future plans, with it once having appeared that Suárez would start Game 3 on Monday ahead of a possible bullpen game in Game 4. In fact, Thomson wasn’t even sure what that impact would be, and said he will wait until Saturday to gauge if Suárez could still be in line for that start.

"[I’ll pitch] even tomorrow, if they need me,” said Suárez, who pitched in the game in place of his regularly scheduled side session. “Whatever is needed. As long as we win, I'll be there.”

Because Eflin, a converted starter, threw more than one inning on Friday and hadn’t pitched the day after such an outing since he converted to relief in September, it doesn’t appear likely that he’ll be available for Game 2, meaning that Andrew Bellatti or Connor Brogdon may need to pick up those innings if needed.

Thomson also stretched Domínguez beyond one inning for the third time since the end of May -- two of which have come in October. He did not pitch the day after any of those appearances, and when he came back on one day’s rest following a two-inning outing in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, he allowed the tying and go-ahead runs in Game 5.

With that in mind, Thomson might exercise caution with Domínguez in Game 2 -- but he might not have that luxury, and it’s worth noting that Domínguez has actually been better with less rest this season, holding opponents to a .468 OPS when pitching without rest.

Regardless, Thomson made the calls to win the game in front of him, afforded the chance to steal a victory in Houston by the improbable comeback against Verlander that put the Phillies in position to become the sixth team in World Series history (in 226 tries) to win a game in which they trailed by five or more runs.

"Opportunities to win on the road in any series, let alone postseason series, don't come along very often," Hoskins said. "That's what [Thomson’s] done the whole postseason, too. There's no reason to stop now."

The Astros have enough depth in their fully operational Death Star of a pitching staff that they don’t need to push any one pitcher beyond what’s necessary. And yet, Baker left a struggling Verlander in for the fifth inning, allowing the Phillies to complete a five-run comeback. That’s even after Verlander had clearly labored during a three-run, 31-pitch fourth inning during which the Phillies had hit four batted balls in excess of 100 mph.

Then, Baker and the Astros had Bryan Abreu take the mound for a second inning of relief. That, too, almost backfired on Houston when Abreu lost the strike zone and the Phillies applied pressure by loading the bases in a tie game before Héctor Neris entered and escaped the jam.

Abreu has pitched more than one inning 18 times this season, and in all but four of those instances, the Astros gave him at least three days of rest. But considering the depth of the Houston bullpen and the travel day coming up following Game 2 to rest arms, the Astros will realistically be affected by their Game 1 ‘pen usage far less than the Phillies in the coming days.

"It's hard to take Justin out, because he can struggle for a while, but he usually gets it back together," Baker said. "You don't want to just go through your whole bullpen that early in the game."

Don’t tell that to Thomson, who was far more aggressive with a far less robust ‘pen. The cost for Houston was awfully steep, as the Phillies stole Game 1 on the road -- and this time of year, victories are the only currency that matters.

"We definitely needed to pick up a game out here, because when we get back in front of the Philly faithful, we're in good shape," Robertson said. "Being able to pick up at least one on the road to get back and have a chance to close it out is exactly what we're trying to do."