After split in Houston, much rides on Syndergaard in swing game Monday night


HOUSTON -- Rob Thomson has conducted this postseason like a fine symphony, hitting all the right notes and producing sweet music. Now comes the test.

Thomson went for the bullpen kill in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday night. He got the win. In Game 2 on Saturday night, the Houston Astros came out swinging against Zack Wheeler. The right-hander's velocity was down and his pitches found the heart of the plate too frequently. The Astros barreled him for five runs, three in the first inning, on their way to a 5-2 win.

So this World Series is tied at a game apiece heading to Citizens Bank Park, which has been a weapon for the home team this postseason. The Phils have yet to lose there this month.

Thomson's go-for-the-jugular, win-today-worry-about-tomorrow-tomorrow approach to this postseason is to be commended. In a short series, you can't mess around. You have to win the games that are sitting there for you, grab 'em by the throat. Thomson went to Jose Alvarado earlier than usual in Game 1 and employed presumed Game 3 starter Ranger Suarez for three batters and two outs later in the game.

Though Suarez threw just 11 pitches Friday night -- basically a high-intensity side session -- he will not be available to start Game 3 Monday night in Philadelphia. 

Noah Syndergaard will get that start with Suarez sliding back to start Game 4 Tuesday.

"An extra day, yeah," Thomson said, explaining his reason for pushing back Suarez. "We figure for Game 4 he can at least give us -- we can extend him out a little bit more than we could if he was pitching Game 3."

Even though Syndergaard will likely be asked to get just nine outs, one turn through the Astros' lineup, the Phils are asking a lot of him. He struggled down the stretch but rebounded with a good start in Washington in the final week of the season. He got nine big outs against Atlanta in the NLDS clincher. He will need another good outing Monday night – followed by good work from the bullpen -- because it will be a huge swing game. The Phillies have not trailed in a series throughout this postseason run, which now includes 10 wins and just three losses. How will they react if they are down in a series? They really don't want to find out.

The Phils, however, are experienced in going home tied at a game apiece. They've done it twice so far this postseason and have won all five games at home to advance to the next round.

"It all feels familiar," Rhys Hoskins said after Saturday night's loss. "Obviously, we'd like to go back home up, 2-0, but I think if you told us before the series started that we would be able to steal a game here and have a win under our belt, guaranteeing three games at home, I think everybody would be pretty ecstatic with that. Sure, we're obviously disappointed with the loss tonight. But we've been here before."

The Phillies' starting pitching was a strength throughout the season, but it's looking suspect now. Aaron Nola has pitched poorly in his last two outings -- Game 2 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series -- and Wheeler struggled in Game 2 Saturday night. Combined, they've given up 10 runs in the first two games of this World Series and neither has pitched past the fifth inning.

The Phillies do not have a dependable fourth starter -- that's why they've been piecing together bullpen games in that spot -- and their No. 3 starter is now pushing back to Game 4 because he helped the club win Game 1.

Right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. will start for Houston on Monday night.

The Phils had a golden chance to go up two games in the series Saturday. What a recipe, a come-from-behind, extra-innings win in Game 1, followed by a Wheeler start in Game 2. Who wouldn't like that?

Wheeler, however, was hit hard. He allowed three doubles and two runs on his first four pitches. He was also hurt by his defense, a flat-footed play by Matt Vierling in center field and an error by shortstop Edmundo Sosa, in the first inning, before giving up a two-run homer in the fifth.

"He was just a little off," Thomson said of Wheeler. "His stuff was a little bit light and the location was a little bit off."

How light was Wheeler's stuff?

Well, his four-seam fastball reached 97 mph only three times and it averaged just 95.6 mph, which was below his season average of 95.9. In his previous start against San Diego in the NLCS clincher, his four-seamer averaged 97.2 mph and he threw 11 of them at 99 mph. 

With the decreased velocity, Wheeler threw more sinkers and sliders than four-seamers. The dip in velocity raised some health questions. He was hit on the inside of the left knee by a line drive in his previous start Sunday and felt soreness during the week. He also spent a month on the injured list late in the season with elbow inflammation.

Wheeler said the leg felt fine. He said his elbow felt fine. He's not the type of guy to admit it even if they did not feel fine.

"It's just late in the season," Wheeler said of the velocity drop. "It's a bad time for it to happen, but it is what it is.

"They were just aggressive and I left those first two balls right over the plate. That's what a good team does with it. I tried to match their aggression and get off the corners a little bit more. They just came out swinging.

"Everybody's game plan against me is to be really aggressive and get on top of the fastball. I kind of expected that. For them to swing at the first two pitches, I just need to execute better."

Nola lines up to start Game 5 Wednesday night at home. Wheeler will go Game 6 Friday night in Houston, if necessary. It's anybody's guess who goes Game 7, if the series goes that long. Maybe Suarez on three days' rest. Maybe Syndergaard and the cavalry. But first things first. The Phils need a good one, no matter how long, from Syndergaard on Monday night. It's a swing game, the Phillies have yet to trail in a series this postseason and they don't want to start now.

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