Until Pitching Improves, the Dingers Will Continue: Phillies Move to Within One Game of World Series

© Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — There are baseball games, and then there’s the Phillies 10-6 win over San Diego in Game 4 of the NLCS. This game lasted four days, saw 19 home runs, and involved 31 pitchers. It was interrupted in the bottom of the fourth inning by plagues of frogs and locusts and decided in the eighth by the timely arrival of Hessian mercenaries. It was loud, maximalist, and weirdly bawdy, like the works of Ken Russell or Electric Six.

The tactical puzzle of postseason baseball has always been about getting the highest possible percentage of innings from the team’s best pitchers. This has been so since Three-Finger Brown. But since 2015, the pursuit of the lockdown postseason pitching staff has consumed the attention of baseball’s top thinkers and empiricists as never before. Can a team conjure an entire staff of front-line starters and lockdown relievers? The Astros seem to have done that this season, but that might be a unique achievement in modern baseball history.

Still other managers — especially Terry Francona in 2016 and Dave Martinez in 2019 — have schemed, finagled, and cajoled their best starters and most trustworthy relievers into the most important situations available. To some extent, this has become the blueprint in October. Pitchers start on short rest, one-inning relievers get stretched to six or seven outs, starters close games on their throw days. Anything to keep the Other Guys out of close games.

But sometimes, it just can’t be helped. The back of the rotation and the middle relievers must pitch. That’s what happened in Game 4, and the ensuing chaos showed how good baseball can be when the pitching isn’t:

Both the Phillies and Padres have three playoff-quality starting pitchers. With the resurgence of Josh Hader and the emergence of Nick Martinez as a wicked curveball-slinging monster, the Padres came into this series with a deeper bullpen, and after Game 3 said bullpen was better-rested. The Phillies have… let’s call it three and a half trustworthy relievers. Rob Thomson rode Zach Eflin, José Alvarado, and Seranthony Domínguez hard in Game 3, opting to press as much as possible for a likely win and let the chips fall where they may the following night.

What numerous, weighty chips they turned out to be.

It made sense to hand Bailey Falter his first postseason start — he was one of two once-through-the-order options the Phillies had, along with Noah Syndergaard — and as a lefty he’d be better-suited to stretch out to face Juan Soto twice. But after retiring the first two batters of the game, Falter allowed a home run to Manny Machado, followed by a single, a walk, and a two-run double to bête noire Brandon Drury, who’d come around to score after Falter was removed in favor of Connor Brogdon with two outs in the first.

That should’ve been enough to put the Phillies on the ropes for the rest of the night, but Mike Clevinger fared even worse. He faced four batters and didn’t retire a single one, and it took a heroic effort from Martinez to retain a 4-3 lead after the first inning.

Martinez threw three perfect innings, his 43-pitch workload his largest since June, to take the air out of the Phillies’ offense. But even after stretching Martinez, Bob Melvin couldn’t get 18 outs from his high-leverage guys alone — he needed a bridge.

In the bottom of the fourth, he found an opportunity to insert Sean Manaea, his no. 5 starter. The bottom of the Phillies’ order was coming up, including Bryson Stott and Brandon Marsh, two lefties who usually get platooned out against left-handed starters. If Manaea could get even six outs without allowing the Phillies to tie it, the back-end guys would be able to take the handoff and probably tie the series.

Instead, Manaea melted down. The first batter he faced, an ice-cold Nick Castellanos, rang a double to center, and Stott drove him in to tie the game soon after. The Padres actually retook the lead in the top of the fifth, as Soto hit a two-run homer off Brad Hand, the reliever who allowed the Padres to break the game wide open in Game 2.

But after striking out Marsh, Manaea, like Falter and Clevinger, allowed four straight costly baserunners. Rhys Hoskins tied the game with a two-run home run of his own; in the blink of an eye Bryce Harper was doubling in the go-ahead run, drawing his hands across the team wordmark on his jersey like he’d just won a Tour de France stage, and declaring Citizens Bank Park to be his [expletive] house:

The Padres bullpen as such pitched well enough to win, but they couldn’t steal enough outs from their back-end starters to keep the Phillies from putting double digits on the board:

Pitching Comparison, NLCS Game 4
Player(s) IP H ER BB SO HR WPA
Manaea and Clevinger 1.1 7 8 3 2 2 -.837
All Other Padres Pitchers 6.2 4 2 0 6 2 .106
Non-Eflin Phillies Relievers 7.1 5 2 1 7 1 .012

The Phillies, by contrast, managed not only to stop the bleeding but stifle the Padres offense. Alvarado and Domínguez did not pitch. Between Falter’s exit and Eflin’s appearance in the ninth inning, the Phillies used five pitchers —Brogdon, Andrew Bellatti, Hand, Syndergaard, and David Robertson — who are outside the usual circle of trust. And Hand’s messy fifth inning notwithstanding, they were outstanding. Brogdon deserves particular credit for limiting the damage in the first = and then going on to pitch two more scoreless innings afterward, a task he’s usually not asked to take on.

What happens when the Other Guys pitch? For the Padres’ offense, not that much. For the Phillies’ offense, a series of crushing home runs and extra-base hits that stirred an already-excitable team and stadium into an orgiastic froth. It’s now overwhelmingly likely (86.8%, according to ZiPS) that the Phillies, a team that looked dysfunctional for months at a time this season, will wrap up their first pennant in 13 years. Perhaps behind Zack Wheeler on Sunday, perhaps in San Diego in the two days that follow. The Padres have used up their margin for error.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

I’m not sure that the game really lasted four days but it made me chuckle. Also there’s no excuse to bring in Manaea in that situation. Contrast that with how the Phillies successfully used the best of their pen in Game 3. Melvin should have learned from Guardians Game 5, and even Falter in this very game. Important situations are no time to use the worst pitchers on your team On one month rest.