Bullpen decision backfires as Phillies' season ends, so close but 450 feet away


HOUSTON -- The fateful sixth inning will be debated all winter.

Or at least until the Eagles lose their first game.

Should Rob Thomson have let Zack Wheeler try to get out of his own jam instead of entrusting the job to Jose Alvarado?

The debate started the instant that Yordan Alvarez made contact with Alvarado's 99-mph sinker in Game 6 of the World Series on Saturday night.

"When he hit the ball," Alvarado said afterward, "the sound -- you say, 'OK, that's gone.'"

Gone like the Phillies' dream of winning the World Series.

It was a great ride, this thing they call Red October, but it ended in bitter disappointment with a 4-1 loss at Minute Maid Park on the fifth day of November. The Astros are World Series champions for the second time in six years. Dusty Baker is a World Series winner for the first time in 25 years as a big-league skipper.

The Astros are champs because their pitching completely shut down the strikeout-happy Phillies (71 strikeouts in six games was a World Series record) the last three games.

They are champions because Yordan Alvarez decided to be Yordan Alvarez with one out in the sixth inning and two runners on base.

The behemoth Houston slugger hit 37 homers during the regular season but was 2 for 21 in the series when he launched that 2-1 sinker from Alvarado not just over the centerfield wall, but over the batter's eye, as well. Off the bat at 112 mph, it traveled 450 feet. An emphatic dagger to the heart of the Phillies' season and fodder for the second-guessers.

But Thomson didn't second-guess himself.

Philly Rob rode with a certain style of bullpen management throughout this postseason and it was a big reason the Phillies had success. He wasn't about to change in Game 6 of the World Series.

So even though Zack Wheeler had a fastball that resembled "lightning bolts coming out of his hands," to use catcher J.T. Realmuto's words, Thomson pulled the right-hander at 70 pitches when the Astros put runners on the corners with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Phillies had a 1-0 lead thanks to Kyle Schwarber's final important home run of the season, struck a half-inning earlier. Now, Philly Rob was going to follow his favorite postseason pattern: Alvarado was going to come in for a lefty-on-lefty showdown with Alvarez, just like he did in the fifth inning of Game 1. Alvarado induced a popup from Alvarez in that moment and the Phillies went on to win, 6-5.

The difference in that game and this game was that starter Aaron Nola had already been lit up for five runs in Game 1. In this one, Wheeler was putting up zeroes with 97-98 mph heat and bat-breaking stuff. Arm fatigue? Nah, he said he felt great. He retired Alvarez in the first and fourth innings.

After the game, Thomson said he would have stuck with Wheeler if the Astros had just one man on base. But once they got runners on the corners, capitalizing on a hit batsman and a seeing-eye ground ball base hit up the middle, Thomson popped out of the dugout.

"It caught me off guard a little bit," Wheeler said.

He wanted to stay in and clean up his own mess.

"Yeah, I would have," he said. "It's win or go home right there. That's a tough pill to swallow, but it's ultimately Thoms' call and that's the call he made."

Wheeler said he was given no heads-up before the game that Thomson might employ Alvarado in that situation. But, really, was a heads-up needed? This had become a regular postseason practice for the manager. Even Rhys Hoskins acknowledged it had become "a winning formula and we all have confidence in Alvarado."

Nonetheless ...

"Honestly, I was just caught off guard," Wheeler said. "It is what it is, right?"

While the Astros' popped champagne corks, Thomson explained his decision in the postgame news conference.

"I thought Wheels still had really good stuff," Thomson said. "It wasn't about that. It was just, I thought the matchup was better with Alvarado on Alvarez at that time."

Thomson had not spoken to Wheeler in the dugout or immediately after the game. In the postgame news conference, he was informed that Wheeler was surprised by the decision.

"I'm sure he was," Thomson said. "Yeah, I'm sure he was. I mean, he still had his good stuff. I just thought that that was a key moment in the game and that was a momentum swing that I thought Alvarado had a chance to strike him out.

"If there's one guy on, I probably let him face Alvarez, but once they're first and third, and Alvarez is a fly-ball guy, so I thought the best way to get us past that inning was to try and punch him out right there."

The Astros ended up scoring four times in the inning.


Phillies' season.

There was so much more to this World Series than the decision to remove Zack Wheeler in the sixth inning with the team up 1-0 in Game 6. The Phillies' offense faded badly after hitting five home runs in Game 3. They were no-freaking-hit and struck out 14 times in Game 4. The defense was shoddy in Game 5. They had just three hits in Game 6 and struck out 12 times.

But the thing that will be debated long into the winter will be the decision to pull Wheeler. It ain't easy being a baseball manager. You think through a move, have sound reasons for doing it. You make the move. Then it's up to the player to execute. If he does, you're a genius. If he doesn't, you're a dunce.

"I didn't change anything," Alvarado said. "I'm coming in to compete like the same Alvarado. Sometimes you win and sometimes you tip your hat to the hitter. That's baseball. That's baseball."

And that's a wrap on a Phillies season that started on April 8 and ended on November 5, two wins from a World Series championship. So close, but 450 feet away.

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