5 NLCS games in 5 days: Which staff has the edge?

October 20th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- Both the Padres and Phillies entered this year’s National League Championship Series with their rotations lined up perfectly -- but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some tough decisions in the days ahead.

In a typical best-of-seven series, a club’s Game 3 starter is available to start a potential Game 7 on regular rest, with the Game 4 starter also an option on short rest. But without an off-day between Games 5 and 6 (if necessary) in the LCS this season, that’s not the case.

Neither Padres manager Bob Melvin nor Phillies manager Rob Thomson named a Game 4 starter during Thursday’s workout day at Citizens Bank Park. They also shied away from talking about how they’d navigate their respective rotations through potentially playing five games in five days.

But while neither may be ready to tip his hand just yet, let’s take a look at the pitching questions that will likely determine the series.

Who starts Game 4?

This is where things get interesting for the Phillies. After Friday’s Game 3, the trio of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez will have started eight of their nine games this postseason. Noah Syndergaard started the other, pitching three innings in Game 4 of the NLDS. Kyle Gibson's 1 1/3-inning relief appearance in Game 2 in San Diego was his first game action since Oct. 1. Bailey Falter hasn't pitched since tossing one inning in the regular-season finale on Oct. 5.

In other words, one of Syndergaard, Gibson or Falter will likely be tasked with getting through the Padres’ order one time before turning it over to a series of relievers. That could put Philadelphia’s ‘pen in a tough spot for the rest of the series, though it’s a situation that could be alleviated with long starts from Wheeler and Nola in Games 5 and 6, respectively.

As for the Padres, they figure to call on Mike Clevinger, who has pitched well in stints this season, though he struggled down the stretch. After putting up a 6.52 ERA in his final six regular-season starts, he allowed five runs (four earned) over just 2 2/3 innings in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers.

Who starts a potential Game 7?

Both teams will likely roll with their Game 3 starter -- Suárez for the Phillies and Joe Musgrove for the Padres -- on three days' rest. With Wheeler and Yu Darvish having only one day of rest following their expected Game 5 starts, they could potentially pitch an inning out of the bullpen, but anything beyond that is unlikely. Nola and Blake Snell figure to be unavailable after likely pitching the night before in Game 6.

Which bullpen lines up better?

Both bullpens are expected to play a significant role in Saturday’s pivotal Game 4, as well as an if-necessary Game 7 -- so which team has the edge?

The good news is that both starting rotations set up their bullpens to handle some extra work in October by taking on more innings during the regular season. San Diego’s starters pitched 901 innings (most in NL), while Philadelphia’s starters tossed 896 2/3 (second in NL).

Postseason ticket information: Padres | Phillies

The Padres' bullpen appears, on paper, to have more depth. Josh Hader has not only rediscovered his elite form, but he's throwing harder than ever -- and making history in the process. San Diego's key relievers -- Hader, Nick Martinez, Robert Suarez and Luis García -- have combined to allow just two runs while striking out 27 batters over 23 1/3 innings this postseason.

Padres relievers recorded 31 consecutive outs at one point, spanning from the NL Wild Card Series against the Mets to the NLDS against the Dodgers.

On the other side, Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado may both be pitching better than they ever have at the back end of the Phillies' bullpen. Domínguez has allowed just one hit while striking out 10 over 4 2/3 scoreless innings this postseason. Alvarado has a 1.50 ERA and 45 strikeouts over his last 30 innings dating back to the regular season.

But Philadelphia’s depth will be tested with the daunting NLCS schedule. After all, not only has Domínguez yet to pitch on back-to-back days this postseason, he hasn’t even pitched on fewer than two days’ rest. He pitched on back-to-back days only once in September, tossing a scoreless inning on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 vs. the Braves.

Zach Eflin’s transition to the bullpen -- and ability to pitch multiple innings -- will be significant for the Phillies, as will the return of David Robertson, who missed the NLDS due to a strained right calf. The ability of those two guys to handle high-leverage innings when Domínguez is potentially unavailable could dictate this series.

How effective will Hader be on back-to-back days?

Speaking of handling back-to-back days, the Padres will likely need Hader to do exactly that if they’re going to advance to the World Series.

So is he up for it?

Well, Hader’s lone appearance on zero days’ rest this postseason came in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. He struck out Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman on 10 pitches. He also pitched on back-to-back days twice during the 2018 postseason with Milwaukee, totaling 1 1/3 scoreless innings.

Hader also had three days off between his NLDS-clinching save and his save in Game 2 of the NLCS, meaning he will have pitched just once in the past five days entering Friday’s Game 3.

It’s not unreasonable to think a suddenly unhittable Hader could pitch in four of the five remaining games, if necessary -- and if he can maintain his effectiveness, that could be the difference in the Padres winning the pennant.