Back in the first week of September, Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi reshuffled his starting rotation. The goal was to line up the Phillies’ best arms to face the Atlanta Braves in the second-to-last series of the regular season. It made sense: More likely than not, those three games would go a long way in determining the winner of the National League East.
The Phillies are now at that point. The problem? It’s since become clear that their best starters are not currently lined up for the crucial three-game set in Atlanta. Because just like the Phillies in the National League playoff picture, one of their two best arms — Ranger Suárez’s left — is on the outside looking in.
Since Girardi made the decision to line up Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Kyle Gibson to pitch Games 1, 2 and 3 of this week’s Atlanta series, Gibson has pitched to a 7.16 ERA across five September starts. Nola, whose 2021 season has been nothing short of an enigma, has posted a slightly better mark of 6.58 in September. That includes his most recent start, a six-run outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who rank dead last in Major League Baseball in runs this year.
Meanwhile, in that same time frame, Suárez has continued to dominate the same way he has all season. He has a 1.41 ERA in September. He’s coming off the best start of his career, in which he blanked the Pirates on a four-hit “Maddux”. He has established himself as not only one of the best pitchers on the Phillies’ entire staff, but far and away the hottest.
Simply put, if the Phillies treat this series like the must-sweep that it is, Suárez has to start one of those three games. It isn’t only that he’s pitched himself into that task; it’s that Nola and Gibson have pitched themselves out of it. In the biggest games of the season, the Phillies’ last chance at climbing back into the playoff field, it would be indefensible for Suárez not to partake.
But it’s not so easy as to flip-flop Gibson and Suárez’s starts on Thursday and Friday and call it a day. Even if the Phillies manage to emerge from Atlanta with a sweep, they’d still hold just a 1/2-game lead over the Braves for first place in the NL East, making each of the final three games against the Marlins in Miami also must-wins. Suárez needs to start one of them as well.
The only way to squeeze two more starts out of Suárez in the final week of the season is by giving him the ball on short rest on Wednesday, then again in Sunday’s Game 162. Back-to-back starts on three days rest is admittedly no small task, especially coming off his 97-pitch shutout.
But if there’s anything Suárez has shown this season, it’s that he has the propensity for answering any challenge the Phillies throw his way. He’s also shown that he’s quite capable of handling unconventional workloads. When the lefty moved into the starting rotation in August, he threw 33 pitches in his first start. By start three, he was up to 82, and he’s thrown at least 90 pitches in six of his last seven. That’s nothing if not adaptability.
Plus, if given the choice between Suárez on three days of rest or Nola and Gibson — take your pick — on full rest, who would you prefer? Suárez, despite the short break, is the logical answer.
Fitting Suárez into Game 162 would force the Phillies to push Wheeler’s final start up by a day from Sunday to Saturday, leaving him too with three days of rest before that final start. His usage this season is admittedly worrisome — his 206 1/3 innings on the year leads Major League Baseball — and he’s benefitted from an extra day of rest here and there in the season’s final month. But, frankly, something has to give.
It still leaves the Phillies with a decision to make in Atlanta between Nola and Gibson for the series finale, and there are arguments to be made either way. Gibson hasn’t faced the Braves this season, and Nola has squared off against them four times with a 4.44 ERA, so perhaps a new look could work in Gibson’s favor.
That said, Nola’s last start against Atlanta was a near-shutout in July, so maybe they ride the (comparatively) hot hand. Each of them has historically fared best after exactly five days of rest, but only Gibson’s numbers skyrocket when given a sixth. Starting him Thursday with five days of rest instead of Friday with six would avoid that problem.
We’re splitting hairs. Neither one has been anything near dominant recently, and the difference between the two isn’t so glaring that one should unquestionably toe the rubber in Atlanta instead of the other.
But one of them has to start. The important thing is that the Phillies maximize Suárez’s usage in the season’s final week, for the simple reason that he’s been their second-best starter in the regular season and their best of late.
Using Suárez twice would also eliminate the dreaded bullpen game currently slated for Saturday. The Phillies have allowed 6, 2, 8 and 11 runs in their last four bullpen games, numbers that wouldn’t exactly instill much confidence on the second-to-last day of the regular season.
The changes would leaves the Phillies’ rotation looking like this in the final week:
- Tuesday: Wheeler
- Wednesday: Suárez (short rest)
- Thursday: Nola or Gibson
- Friday: Gibson or Nola
- Saturday: Wheeler (short rest)
- Sunday: Suárez (short rest)
If Girardi opts not to reshuffle, the rotation is as follows:
- Tuesday: Wheeler
- Wednesday: Nola
- Thursday: Gibson
- Friday: Suárez
- Saturday: Bullpen game
- Sunday: Wheeler
Sure, maybe the Phillies get better versions of Wheeler and Suárez with the latter configuration. But more importantly, they also get less of them, and the Phillies need more. They must squeeze every ounce that they can out of their top horses in the rotation. If they somehow win the division, they still have four days off before the NLDS to reset.
The odds are slim either way, but some unconventional shuffling by Girardi gives them their best chance to pull it off, and the Phillies have no choice but to do whatever it takes.
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