High bullpen usage ups stakes for D-backs, Phillies ace showdown in NLCS’ Game 5

Oct 21, 2023, 12:39 AM | Updated: 12:55 am

PHOENIX — If we saw a Game 5 in this National League Championship Series, the stakes were going to be high no matter what, whether it was 3-1 or 2-2.

It’s the latter between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies. So we will get to see part two of the ace showdown between Arizona’s Zac Gallen and Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler, with the better effort between the two likely deciding who will be one victory away from the World Series.

And what makes it even more important for both sides to get the best out of their best is how heavily used both bullpens were in Game 4, a 6-5 D-backs victory.

Arizona opted with opener Joe Mantiply and did so without turning to a long reliever, meaning every other arm would have to be just about perfect for it to work without over-burdening pitchers primarily used to toss an inning or less.

In total, the D-backs used a franchise record eight of their 13 total pitchers on the NLCS roster. Take out starters Gallen, Merrill Kelly and rookie Brandon Pfaadt, along with the long relief of youngsters Ryne Nelson and Slade Cecconi, and that’s all eight remaining relievers that saw the mound. D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said he was saving Nelson and Cecconi for extra innings, noting how the ghost runner goes away in the postseason.

Despite everyone used, Lovullo said all of his pitchers will be available for Saturday’s Game 5.

Lovullo’s gambit came so close to working and the timing for getting to his first of four high-leverage guys was just about perfect.

After Miguel Castro’s 1.2 innings of work to get halfway through the fifth inning, southpaw Andrew Saalfrank entered against Philly lefty Brandon Marsh in the eight hole with a runner on second and two outs. Saalfrank would have star lefties in Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper up soon after, allowing Lovullo to play matchups while avoiding a multi-inning outing for Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel or Paul Sewald.

Lovulo revealed after the game the rookie Saalfrank, who had experience throwing for more than an inning twice in the regular season, was the one he wanted to serve that purpose following Castro doing the same.

But Saalfrank gave up a double to Marsh, tying the game at two before he got out of the fifth. And then Saalfrank opened the sixth by walking Schwarber, Trea Turner and Harper in a row.

“I did not see that coming,” Lovullo said of the result. “He’s been very effective, especially left on left. You’ve got two unbelievable left-handed hitters that you’ve just got to contain and I felt like that was going to give us the best opportunity.”

Saalfrank clearly didn’t have his best stuff prior to facing Turner, which is when Lovullo could have went to Thompson, but he decided to let Saalfrank face Turner and at that point go with the lefty-lefty look on Harper.

“At that point in time, I was kind of kicking myself,” Lovullo said of the moment after the third Saalfrank walk. “I could have clipped him a little bit early but then there would have been a huge workload placed on Thompson.”

That loaded the bases, leaving Thompson to try and clean up the mess. He did the best he could, getting a good result from the first batter, a grounder down the left field line. Third baseman Emmanuel Rivera, though, tossed the force-out throw to home in the dirt on a tough angle off-balance and catcher Gabriel Moreno couldn’t corral it, scoring two runs.

Thompson got out of it from there but not before giving up one more run in the seventh inning. He did close it out, however, to end up at 2.0 innings pitched. Setup man Kevin Ginkel threw a scoreless eighth, and ditto for closer Paul Sewald in the ninth.

On the Philadelphia side, starter Cristopher Sanchez only lasted 2.1 innings after not being expected to go too deep into the game. Relievers Jeff Hoffman, Matt Strahm and Seranthony Dominguez got the bullpen to the bottom of the seventh with one out and a three-run lead before the Phillies had their own meltdown.

Gregory Soto gave up a walk and a single after producing the second out and leaving the rest to Orion Kerkering. The righty was going through it, walking Moreno and Christian Walker on five pitches. The second base on balls scored a run but a groundout ended the threat.

Closer Craig Kimbrel took the eighth, all three earned runs and the loss. A double and homer indicated something wasn’t right with the future Hall of Famer before allowing a single to Ketel Marte and hitting Corbin Carroll with his first pitch confirmed it. Jose Alvarado allowed the game-deciding hit, a Moreno single, before ending the eighth in just six pitches.

Kimbrel now has two losses in two days after coming into Thursday’s Game 3 having allowed just one hit and two walks in four scoreless innings this postseason.

Of the seven Philly relievers, high pitch totals for Hoffman (25), Strahm (19), Dominguez (23) and Kimbrel (21) could restrict their availability on Saturday. Kerkering and Kimbrel were shaky enough to where the Philllies might not want to put them out there, anyway.

On the D-backs side, even though Lovullo said everyone could go, it’s Castro (19), Saalfrank (25), Thompson (23) and Sewald (22) who racked ’em up. Put Saalfrank in the same category as Kerkering and Kimbrel, although Kimbrel’s veteran tenure allows him more faith than a pair of first-year players.

Phillies manager Rob Thomson was non-committal on whether Kimbrel will continue to see the high-leverage spots or not, a notable postgame takeaway.

“Yeah, I mean, I think that he’s gone through a couple of spots like this and fought back,” he said of Kimbrel. “He’s an experienced guy and he’s got a short memory and he’ll come back.”

And then there’s factoring in Thursday’s Game 3, which featured the D-backs’ Saalfrank (15 pitches), Thompson (11), Ginkel (14) and Sewald (21), plus Philly’s Hoffman (9), Kerkering (8), Alvarado (15) and Kimbrel (24).

Surely some high-leverage guys will get out there for the third day straight. The question is not only who, but how effective they can possibly be given how much workloads have changed in the current analytics era of baseball.

Thomson said they will review who is available on Saturday morning, noting it’s a tough group that wants to pitch but they don’t want put anyone in harm’s way. Game 3 starter Ranger Suarez “could be” used in the bullpen on Saturday as well.

Regardless, that’s a whole lot of hoopla outside of what matters most, which is both how well Gallen and Wheeler can pitch for and how long.

Gallen’s eclipsed the century mark on a pitch count eight times this year and gone north of 105 twice, with 107 on Sept. 8 and a season-high 110 on June 4.

Wheeler’s been granted a bit more freedom than Gallen, reaching 100 pitches in 18 of his 32 starts in 2023 and done 105-plus in 10 different outings. His largest total for the season, though, is similar to Gallen’s, 111.

Both hurled 100 pitches on the dot once this postseason.

Lovullo, as you’d expect, has all the faith in Gallen to make the unique circumstances work.

“I couldn’t think of a better starting pitcher to have tomorrow knowing that Zac is going to be walking in here and giving us as many pitches as he possibly can,” Lovullo said.

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