HOUSTON — It had been months since José Alvarado entered a game any earlier than the sixth inning. The last time he’d been asked to do so was late May—back when he was still mired in some early struggles, before he became one of the most dependable pitchers in this bullpen, even before Rob Thomson was named manager of the Phillies. (Alvarado’s last pre-sixth-inning appearance came in the final week before former skipper Joe Girardi was fired.) In other words: This version of Alvarado, playing for this version of the Phillies, had never, ever been asked to show up so early.
But October is different. So when Alvarado got the call in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the World Series: What on earth was he thinking?
“Nothing, man,” the lefty said, grinning. “When the game starts, I say all the time, I’m ready. If you need me, I’m ready.”
Ready he was: Alvarado made quick work of the heart of the Astros’ order to keep the game tied. And while this was the first aggressive bullpen call of the night from Thomson, it would not be the last, in a set of bold decisions that paid off handsomely for the rookie manager. He used all his best relievers on Friday—Alvarado, Zack Eflin, Seranthony Domínguez and David Robertson—and his presumptive Game 3 starter, Ranger Suárez, too. He made it clear that he was managing to win today. Yet, at the same time, he did not ask any of his relievers to face more than six batters. Thomson acted proactively at every step; he managed to ask a lot of his best arms tonight without asking so much that he could not go back to them tomorrow.
The result was a 6–5 win over the Astros in 10 innings.
“He’s just got a good pulse on what’s going on,” Phillies president Dave Dombrowski said of Thomson in the clubhouse afterward. “He’s been aggressive all along. He has a real feel of what he needs to do. He knows his personnel so very well.”
The Phillies fell behind 5–0 after starter Aaron Nola got hit early. But their offense battled to tie the game by the top of the fifth. Which brought a tough call for the bottom of the inning: It seemed clear that Nola, lacking his best stuff as he approached 80 pitches, should be yanked before he faced the middle of the Astros’ order for a third time. But depth is not a particular strength of this bullpen. To go to them so early—the fifth inning of a tie game—might stretch the limits of what they could reasonably do.
Thomson did it anyway. He was going to his best relievers, and he was going first to Alvarado, right here in the fifth. It sent a message.
“When he brought Alvarado in that early in the game, in that big of a spot, I thought that was kind of the key in the game,” said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. “Because we had just scored those runs. We had come back, tied the ballgame. And he even said on the mound, he’s like, This is the earliest I’ve ever brought him in. But these outs are huge right here. Like, we have the momentum on our side, we need to get these outs against three of their toughest hitters. And I thought that was huge. Not all managers would bring one of their best guys in that early in the game. And he just pulled all the right buttons from there and the guys responded.”
Alvarado made it look easy. He got Yordan Alvarez to pop out and struck out Alex Bregman. He came back out to start the sixth to face Kyle Tucker—who had hit a home run in each of his two previous at bats on Friday. Alvarado got him to fly out on one pitch.
“The thing for me is about the situation in the game,” Alvarado said. “Tie game. The biggest hitter is coming. Thomson, he needs me early, I’m coming early.”
If that move felt gutsy, it paled in comparison to one that came soon after. The heart of the Astros’ order was due up again starting with two outs in the seventh. Thomson could have played it safe by sticking with Eflin, who had already pitched an inning and change, or he could have reached elsewhere in the bullpen. But he went to a member of his rotation instead: Suárez.
This was a possibility the coaching staff had discussed ahead of time, Thomson said. As the assumed starter for Game 3 on Monday, Suárez was scheduled to throw a side session on Friday, anyway. They knew this part of the lineup would be extremely tough. And if this was the best way to get through it, well, they weren’t turning away.
“We thought, O.K., we’ve got that one pocket, Alvarez to Tucker, that’s a pretty big pocket,” said Thomson—putting it lightly, if anything, given that Alvarez is one of the best young hitters in baseball and Tucker homered twice on Friday and the hitter between them is Bregman. “And [we] thought, well, we’ll put him on that if that situation comes up. If not, that’s fine. And it came up.”
Did it ever. Suárez answered the call just about as well as Alvarado had—striking out Alvarez to end the seventh and fielding a groundout from Bregman to start the eighth. While he did go on to allow a single to Tucker, it was just about time for him to be replaced by Domínguez, anyway, and they got out of the inning smoothly.
Thomson stopped short of confirming that Suárez would still be ready to start on Monday. (“We’ll have to check with him tomorrow, see how he’s doing.”) But he didn’t rule it out. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable: Suárez threw just 11 pitches to those three batters. Thomson’s call managed to be appropriately bold for Friday without completely burning Monday.
This is more aggressive than he had been with his bullpen all year: That’s only natural, of course, as October is different from August. But it’s also not totally unfamiliar. This team embraced flexible bullpen roles throughout the summer. They used a closer-by-committee approach down the stretch. They’ve worked to cultivate this style. “We attack it philosophically,” Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham said earlier this week. “We’re trying as well as we can to build the adaptability, and viewing that as a really good trait, taking pride in getting the ball whenever that is.”
This approach means the Phillies’ last five wins have been closed out by five different pitchers: Alvarado, Domínguez, Eflin, Suárez and now Robertson.
And if you need any one of them in, say, the fifth inning? Chances are they’ll be up and ready.
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