After the Philadelphia Phillies' 6-5 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night, the team faces a pitching dilemma, as what was once a strength is on the cusp of turning into a hindrance.
Before Games 3 and 4 of the National League Championship Series, the Phillies' bullpen was stellar, keeping the Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves and Diamondbacks in check behind a 1.09 ERA, according to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com:
In Thursday's 2-1 loss, the bullpen gave up two earned runs, ending with closer Craig Kimbrel losing control of his command in the ninth inning, allowing the Diamondbacks to earn the walk-off win.
Thomson goes to his bullpen early
On Friday, manager Rob Thomson made the decision to yank starter Cristopher Sánchez after 2 1/3 innings and only 38 pitches, turning the game into a bullpen vs. bullpen matchup against Arizona. And the overworked bullpen showed more cracks for the second night in a row, leading to the loss.
Instead of turning to starters Taijuan Walker or Michael Lorenzen to provide some length from the bullpen and conserve arms during this three-game stretch, Thomson went right into matchup mode, calling on Jeff Hoffman to finish the third inning.
A night after using four arms from the bullpen, the manager called on seven relievers Friday. Of those seven, four — Hoffman, Orion Kerkering, José Alvarado and Craig Kimbrel — were pitching in back-to-back games.
The first three relievers to enter the game — Hoffman, Matt Strahm and Seranthony Domínguez — spanned four innings and didn't give up any runs. It went downhill from there.
Following the game, Thomson spoke with reporters about the bullpen, saying: "I thought Hoffman, Strahm and Seranthony did a nice job too, but for some reason at the back end of our bullpen, we just didn't throw strikes tonight. It's a rarity."
After Domínguez was lifted with one out in the seventh inning, left-hander Gregory Soto came in. He only lasted one-third of an inning, leaving two on before they had to bring Kerkering in to try to get out of the jam.
For the second straight night, the rookie had a game to forget. After allowing all three batters he faced to reach base Thursday, he lost command of the strike zone Friday. Only four of his 13 pitches were strikes. He only recorded one out and surrendered two walks, including one to force in a run.
Kimbrel stumbles again
For the start of the eighth inning, Philadelphia turned to its closer, Craig Kimbrel. It did not pan out.
In back-to-back outings, the right-hander threw 45 pitches and recorded three total outs across both days, surrendering two walks and four earned runs. Of those 45 pitches, Kimbrel only tossed 25 for strikes, losing command and letting the Diamondbacks be patient and take advantage.
In Game 4, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. doubled to start the eighth. While he got Evan Longoria to line out, pinch-hitter Alek Thomas came to the plate and deposited a 3-2 pitch to right-center field, tying up the ballgame. Thomson left his right-hander in there, and things didn't get much better. After a strikeout and single, he hit Corbin Carroll, putting two on base with one in scoring position.
Thomson went to the left-hander Alvarado, but it was too late. One hit later, the Diamondbacks had the go-ahead run across the plate, and the rest is history.
It's safe to assume Kimbrel will not be available to pitch Saturday night after his elevated workload the past two days, forcing Thomson to turn elsewhere if the team finds itself in a closing situation. Thomson also alluded to the fact that they might not utilize Kimbrel in high-pressure situations going forward:
Between Soto, Kerkering, Kimbrel and Alvarado, they threw only 25 strikes on 54 pitches.
Catcher J.T. Realmuto shared his thoughts after the game, speaking on the command issues that the pitchers faced, per Matt Gelb of The Athletic: "That's the difference in the last two games from the first two games. We [had] 0-2, 1-2 counts in the first two [games], and now they're 3-1, 2-0 counts. That's how you turn good hitters into great hitters. That's what we've done the last two nights. We're just falling behind too much and not attacking the strike zone."
Looking ahead, the Phillies bullpen is depleted heading into a crucial Game 5:
After having wasted two opportunities to take advantage of the Diamondbacks' seemingly weaker rotation the past two days, the Phillies will now turn to ace Zack Wheeler to get them deep into the game and get the team back to winning ways in Game 5.