Phillies rotation continues setting pace, tone ahead of strategic break

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PHILADELPHIA — The view from shortstop, where Edmundo Sosa has been one of the most productive players in all of baseball since the Philadelphia Phillies lost their $300 million star to a hamstring injury, is glorious. The Phillies won a game Friday night that lasted 2 hours and 14 minutes. They needed a mere 130 pitches to record 27 outs. There is a pace with which the Phillies play, and it often begins with that night’s starting pitcher.

It is quick and it is confident.

“They make hitters hit a lot of grounders to me,” Sosa said through a team interpreter, “and I can make cool plays behind them.”

The largest crowd of the season (until Saturday’s is bigger) packed into Citizens Bank Park for a 4-2 Phillies win over the St. Louis Cardinals that ended before 9 p.m., and few could complain because this is a rare glimpse. The Phillies will occupy this ballpark only six times in a 24-day span. The schedule is unusual, but it could offer a strategic break for the team with the best record in baseball.

This time next weekend, the Phillies will be in London for an international showcase. Those two games against the New York Mets double as a chance to prioritize the bigger picture. These Phillies are not living and dying with every nine innings like Phillies teams often do when the calendar turns from May to June. They are here because of their rotation, and while two transatlantic flights do not sound relaxing, playing only two games in five days is.

“There’s going to be a lot of days off, which is a good thing right now for our rotation,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “Because we’ve put a lot on them. They’ve logged a lot of innings.”

The Phillies’ starting pitcher has gone six or more innings in 37 of the team’s 58 games. The team is 30-7 in those games. Aaron Nola was the latest to accomplish it; he went 6 1/3 innings Friday night. His ERA is 3.03.

Nola now leads the National League with 77 1/3 innings. Zack Wheeler is third with 73 2/3 innings. And Ranger Suárez is fifth with 72 innings. Those pitchers take pride in that.

“It’s always been my goal to go deep and save the bullpen,” Nola said. “It’s nice to be on a staff where it’s everybody’s goal as well. For everybody to be on the same page, it’s pretty special.”

But everything is about October. The Phillies have devised best practices on how to manage their starting pitchers. That has kept many healthy and effective deep into the last two postseasons. Not everything is preventable — no one in the sport has solved how to stop pitchers from breaking. But team officials have every reason to trust the club’s program developed by the pitching coaches, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches.

It’s why, for now, Thomson thinks the Phillies should stay in rotation. The Phillies have consecutive days off late next week, Thursday and Friday, then one more off day after the London games. Staying in rotation means six or seven days between starts for Nola and Wheeler.

It would put Suárez and Taijuan Walker in line to pitch the London games.

This is a tentative plan. If they skip anyone in London, it might be Suárez. The Phillies might be most concerned about the 28-year-old lefty’s workload. Suárez has not pitched more than 156 innings in a season before. He’s almost halfway to that mark.

Suárez can pitch Saturday against the Cardinals, as scheduled, then not again until 12 days later — June 13 at Fenway Park against the Red Sox — if the Phillies choose the maximum rest scenario. It would be an unusual arrangement, but not unlike a team massaging its rotation around the All-Star Break to ensure extra rest for a particular pitcher.

There are risks. Suárez has been spectacular. Disrupting his routine, while offering him rest, could have detrimental effects. These are the things the Phillies will weigh.

Wheeler likes pitching on regular rest as much as possible but will allow for an extra day when it’s built into the actual game schedule. He will pitch Monday against the Brewers with an extra day of rest. Then, if the Phillies stay in rotation, he would make his next turn on seven days’ rest.

Wheeler, unlike Suárez, has handled a heavier workload before in his career. The Phillies will look for spots to ease back on Wheeler — they could deploy a six-man rotation later this summer like they have in each of the last two seasons — but they want the ace’s input on these matters.

All of the Phillies starters have discussed the importance of going deep in games — not just to win now, but for the trickle-down effect later. Thomson, like every manager in October, applies more aggressive maneuvers during postseason games. He needs all of his relievers for those games.

They have not yet shouldered a heavy load. Consider this: The Phillies have played three more games than the Braves this season — and their relievers have logged 7 2/3 fewer innings than Atlanta’s.

“Our starters are giving us length, which helps the bullpen,” Thomson said. “Sometimes it hurts the bullpen because they don’t get enough work. But right now, I think it’s a really good mix.”

Thomson can point to Matt Strahm as an example. Strahm entered after Nola in Friday’s win and retired the only two batters he faced. He pitched multiple innings in 24 of his 56 appearances last season. Strahm has done it only four times in 24 games this season.

He has a 0.78 ERA.

“His fastball has life — consistent life — that he didn’t really have last year,” Thomson said. “I attribute that to the starting role he was in. It took its toll on him a little bit. He’s been really, really good.”

Nola can see the bigger picture as it relates to the rotation preserving the relievers. At some point, it’ll flip the other way.

“We really need those guys fresh and throwing hard like they do,” Nola said. “For us to try to take those innings off their belt early in the season is big.”

So, a break for the rotation is a good thing. The Phillies have five more games against two National League Central contenders before hopping across the pond. They can bring three extra players with them to London as a taxi squad. They are permitted to play with a 27-man roster in both games, but the 27th man must be a hitter. Per the collective bargaining agreement, every player on the active roster for the London games will receive a $70,000 bonus from Major League Baseball.

It’s a business trip. No matter who pitches, the Phillies have had a workmanlike tempo to every game.

“We have a rotation that takes pride in making the games quick,” Sosa said. “They go after hitters. They do a great job of attacking the hitters. And I have to remain focused and active during the game because of that.”

(Photo of Aaron Nola: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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