Elite eight: D-backs nearly empty the 'pen to secure Game 4

Despite a couple of hitches, bullpen game provides happy ending to help tie up NLCS

October 21st, 2023

PHOENIX -- Seven pitchers had marched to the mound on Friday before Paul Sewald, the eighth and final D-backs hurler to enter Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. As Sewald’s entrance music, House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” blared from the Chase Field PA system, the right-hander marveled, as he later put it, that “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a stadium that loud.”

Anticipation and emotion ran high. Seven relievers had accomplished their jobs. One more needed to.

When Sewald did precisely that, striking out Trea Turner to cap the most aggressive bullpen game of any team this postseason with a 6-5 win over the Phillies, he clenched both fists and braced his knees. An octet of D-backs arms had given Alek Thomas, Gabriel Moreno and Arizona’s offense the chance they needed to guarantee this series will go back to Philadelphia.

“Doesn’t get any bigger than that, right?” Sewald said. “It’s a save in the NLCS. There’s only one level ahead of that, and we have not gotten there yet.”

Before the NLCS began, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo and pitching coach Brent Strom had run down the list of Arizona relievers, noting which of them matched up best with each Phillies hitter. Club leaders understood that at some point in the series, a bullpen game was coming. As such, they began to draw up what that might look like.

In retrospect, it went almost exactly according to plan. Joe Mantiply started, facing the number of batters -- three -- that Lovullo and Strom had hoped he might retire. Luis Frías recorded four outs. Kyle Nelson contributed two. Miguel Castro gave the D-backs five key outs in the middle innings.

That’s where, if only temporarily, things leaned sideways. Heading into the night, Lovullo had hoped rookie Andrew Saalfrank might be able to offer the D-backs a similar measure of length as Castro, but he instead allowed a game-tying RBI double in the fifth inning and walked all three batters he faced in the sixth. At that point, Lovullo reluctantly came to the mound to remove him, which placed additional pressure on the three back-end relievers who remained: Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and Sewald.

“Did not work out the way we wanted it to, but it was really close,” Lovullo said. “We were probably two or three batters off.”

“Obviously, you want to piece it together and have everyone do their job,” Saalfrank added. “I think everyone but myself did their job today. I was kind of lacking. But the guys are just so relentless. For them to come back, it’s sick.”

After Thompson contributed six outs to put the plan back on track, Ginkel pitched a scoreless eighth. At that point, the Arizona offense engineered a three-run rally to take the lead. Sewald began warming. He entered. The crowd jumped around. Then, Sewald pitched around a two-out Kyle Schwarber double to record the 27th and final out, setting a record in the process for total number of pitchers used in a D-backs postseason game.

“It takes 26 guys to win playoff games,” Sewald said. “I feel like we’ve done that a lot the first six wins. I think this one was probably the most 26-man win we’ve had so far. That was a team effort as much as baseball can be.”

Still emotionally buoyant nearly an hour after the game, Sewald quickly shifted his perspective to what comes next. In the aftermath of Friday’s win, the most pressing question was how that performance might strain the D-backs going forward. Of the eight relievers to appear in the game, four will enter Game 5 having pitched on back-to-back nights. That includes Ginkel and Sewald, who have nailed down many of Arizona’s highest-leverage outs this postseason.

As a group of reporters approached Sewald following the game, the closer scrambled to change clothes and run off to the trainer’s room, apologizing profusely for the work he needed to do before he would be able to conduct any interviews.

“I’ve got to make sure I can pitch tomorrow,” Sewald said, understanding that a Game 4 victory will lose much of its luster if the D-backs fail to win Game 5. The implication: He’ll be ready if needed. So will everybody else.

“You find a way,” Ginkel said. “We’ve got a chance to go to the next stage here. We just tied up the series. I think that should add enough fire and fuel to everyone.”