Bullpen games are, basically by definition, a weird time.
When I write a book in 2062 about how baseball teams became transfixed by the pursuit of a more perfect path to 27 outs, I’ll lead with Game 4 of this NLCS. It had it all. One “starting” pitcher recorded three outs. The other got seven. Both managers used eight pitchers. The game was a slog, a parade of pitching changes, until it wasn’t and Chase Field descended into chaos.
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 21, 2023
The only normal happening in Arizona’s 6-5 come-from-behind win was Kyle Schwarber homering. The rest was a strange adventure that swept us all away.
There was the Diamondbacks scoring the game’s first run because Phillies starter Cristopher Sanchez forgot how many outs there were.
There was the Phillies tying it because Miguel Castro bobbled a comebacker, and manager Torey Lovullo played the matchup with Brandon Marsh and lost.
There was rookie Andrew Saalfrank stewing in the Diamondbacks dugout after Marsh’s game-tying double, then coming back out and walking the bases loaded.
There was a grounder to third base that scored two runs.
There was a run walked in.
Then there was Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel, who lost Game 3, called on in the eighth inning of Game 4 to protect a two-run lead. He imploded: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. double, Alek Thomas pinch-hit homer, Ketel Marte single, Corbin Carroll hit by pitch. Jose Alvarado came in to clean up but couldn’t. When Gabriel Moreno won it, the only pitchers left in the Phillies bullpen were starters — actual starters.
The Phillies never got to 27 outs in Game 4. They got 24. The Diamondbacks got 27, but not until closer Paul Sewald blew three fastballs past Trea Turner’s bat with the tying run on second base. What a weird ride that was.
NL Championship Series Game 5: Philadelphia Phillies at Arizona Diamondbacks
Series: Tied, 2-2
Start time: 8:07 p.m. ET on TBS
Pitching matchup: Zack Wheeler vs. Zac Gallen
Game 5 pitching matchup
Phillies: RHP Zack Wheeler
2023 stats: 13-6, 3.61 ERA, 192 innings, 212 strikeouts, 1.08 WHIP
Wheeler has established himself as a bonafide Big Game Pitcher, and this is another big assignment as Wheeler tries to tip the series back in the Phillies’ direction. The 33-year-old right-hander spun six innings of two-run baseball in Game 1 against the Diamondbacks, scattering three hits, walking none and striking out eight. It was a dominant display dinged only by Geraldo Perdomo’s two-run jack in the sixth. Wheeler pounded the Diamondbacks with fastballs, generating 10 of his 17 whiffs on that pitch, and he’ll look to repeat that effort in Game 5.
Wheeler has now started three times against the Diamondbacks in 2023, pitching precisely six innings in each start and allowing three (May 22), two (Oct. 16) and one (June 13) earned run(s). They’ll have one last crack at him here in Game 5, with a lot on the line.
Diamondbacks: RHP Zac Gallen
2023 stats: 17-9, 3.47 ERA, 210 innings, 220 strikeouts, 1.12 WHIP
Gallen must have felt as small as a pint out there on the mound in front of 41,000 roaring Philadelphians in Game 1. Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper slugged first-pitch solo shots in the first inning. Nick Castellanos pounced early in the count in the second inning for another homer. All told, Gallen permitted five runs in five innings. He confronted traffic at every turn. Eight hits. Two walks. A hit-by-pitch. Two wild pitches? Sure, why not. Stuff got screwy.
Gallen’s curveball was an extremely effective pitch in the regular season: .210 opponent batting average, 40.6 percent whiff rate, yada yada. In Game 1, the Phillies spit on it over and over. Gallen hurled 25 of those yakkers, only six of which were in the strike zone as defined by Statcast. So, while the Phillies swung through five curves, they didn’t chase much at all. Gallen will need to get the curve over for strikes in the early going in Game 5, then start burying it.
Game 5 X-factor
The top half of the Diamondbacks lineup has disappeared in this series, with the exception of Marte. He singled twice, walked and scored twice in Game 4 to stretch his postseason hitting streak to 13. According to Sarah Langs, that’s tied for the second-longest hit streak to start a postseason career, matching Greg Luzinski and behind only Marquis Grissom, whose streak hit 15 games.
Marte is 4 for 13 (.308) against Wheeler, with a double, homer and two walks.
A few hours before he’d use six pitchers in the first six innings of Game 4, Lovullo was asked how he feels about bullpen games versus starting a, you know, starter:
“I am very traditional at heart,” he said. “In fourth grade I did a book report on Roy Campanella, and my next book report was written about the Gashouse Gang, right? Who is doing that in fourth grade? Nobody.
“That ought to tell you where I came from. But one of my biggest fears is getting stuck in 2005 and not evolving as a manager and getting run over by this game. I think everybody in every industry that they’re in has that same feel. If you are going to evolve and stay ahead of the curve, you’re going to be successful. So I know where I came from. I know my roots in this game, and I appreciated the Gibson-Drysdale games for sure. Loved them. But this is a new generation of baseball where things are broken down to the inning, to the batter, to the out, to the pitch on a level that we’ve never seen before.”
(Top photo of Lovullo: Harry How / Getty Images)