PHILADELPHIA — The final frames of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series offered a blueprint for how the two managers intend to navigate Game 7. In a 5-1 victory, Arizona manager Torey Lovullo leaned upon the foursome he will likely deploy again on Tuesday evening at Citizens Bank Park. And Phillies manager Rob Thomson kept holstered the quartet likely to take the stage for the series finale.
Both managers used the same rhetoric after the game. “For me, Game 7, it’s, like, all hands on deck,” Lovullo said. “Anything is possible.” Thomson echoed him. “It’s going to be all hand on deck,” he said. But the readiness of relievers will play a particularly prominent role in this Game 7. The marquee will advertise the matchup between Philadelphia starter Ranger Suárez and Arizona starter Brandon Pfaadt. Yet the bullpens are likely to be activated early, as each club scrambles to capture the National League pennant.
So which hands matter most?
Lovullo has favored the same group of relievers since his 84-win club started mowing down opponents this October. Behind closer Paul Sewald comes setup man Kevin Ginkel plus the duo of veteran right-hander Ryan Thompson and rookie lefty Andrew Saalfrank. The group combined for four scoreless innings on Monday.
Thomson has churned through several permutations of his high-leverage group. Heading into Tuesday, it appears he will trust lefty José Alvarado, righty Jeff Hoffman, lefty Matt Strahm and righty Seranthony Domínguez. All four received the night off Monday. At different stages of this postseason, Thomson has used veteran Craig Kimbrel and rookie Orion Kerkering in crucial spots. Recent stumbles have led to demotions.
Kerkering permitted a run on Monday, failing to complete a tidy inning for the third consecutive outing. After Kimbrel got whacked in Game 3 and Game 4 in Arizona, Thomson indicated he was seeking a low-leverage situation to use his erstwhile closer, and one appeared on Monday, with the Phillies trailing by four runs in the eighth inning. Kimbrel issued a walk but otherwise avoided damage. He may not have assuaged all the concerns.
“I don’t know how we’re going to use him moving forward,” Thomson said. “It depends on the game state. But I thought he was better.”
Thomson vouched for the steadiness of his starter, Suárez, a 28-year-old left-hander. “He’s a cool customer,” Thomson said. “He’ll go out there and pitch his game.”
At this time of year, his time within the game tends to be abbreviated. Suárez has never thrown more than 76 pitches in a postseason appearance. He exceeded 80 pitches in 19 of his 22 outings during the regular season. Once October began, though, Thomson limited Suárez’s usage. He logged 3 2/3 innings in his Game 1 start against Atlanta and five innings in his Game 4 start. Suárez was cruising in Game 3 of the NLCS, at 69 pitches with seven strikeouts midway through the sixth inning, when Thomson pulled him.
Suárez shrugged off questions about quick hooks. “It’s in the past,” he said. “There’s no changing it. I’m just focused on (Tuesday). I think it’s going to be a great day. We’re all focused on (Tuesday). It doesn’t matter what happened in today’s game or my last outing.”
Pfaadt, a 25-year-old rookie righty, struggled for most of 2023. He posted a 5.72 ERA in 19 regular-season appearances. But he has exceeded expectations this October. He blanked the Dodgers for 4 2/3 innings in the National League Division Series. In Game 3 of the NLCS, with Arizona facing a 2-0 deficit, Pfaadt delivered an excellent performance, striking out nine and yielding just two hits. The outing steadied the Diamondbacks as they clawed back into this series. But even then, Lovullo would not let him finish the sixth inning. His time on Tuesday figures to also be limited.
So the onus will be on Thompson, Saalfrank, Ginkel and Sewald. Thompson and Ginkel have both made multi-inning appearances this postseason. Saalfrank figures to face Philadelphia’s pair of left-handed-hitting sluggers, Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper. And Sewald may be asked to tackle multiple innings for the first time since July 1. Such are the demands of Game 7. Unlike Thomson, Lovullo did not have the luxury of resting his reliable relievers in Game 6. “We deserve this moment,” Lovullo said.
Neither team tipped its hand about its willingness to use its premier starter. Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler dueled with Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen in Game 1 and again in Game 5. Both indicated they were willing to appear in relief in Game 7, but had not yet been approached by their coaches.
“It could be the last game of the year,” Wheeler said. “We haven’t talked about it or anything. But I’m sure (I’ll be available).”
Gallen planned to throw his regular bullpen session before Tuesday’s game. He said he would skip the session if asked.
“If it’s something they want to do,” Gallen said, “I’ll be ready.”
(Top photo of José Alvarado: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)