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Phillies' bullpen puts together winning formula to help keep Dodgers' juggernauts in check

From Cristopher Sánchez to Jeff Hoffman, Rob Thomson pulled all the right strings with his bullpen in Wednesday night's win over the Dodgers.

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Deploying the bullpen used to be sort of a paint by numbers proposition. When a team had the lead, the third-best reliever would pitch the seventh. The second-best got the eighth. And the closer got the ninth.

It usually worked pretty well. And if it didn’t, well, the manager could hardly be second-guessed for going by the book.

Pretty soon, though, some pretty smart people begin to realize that this didn’t make a lot of sense. The linchpin inning could easily happen before the ninth and if the set-up relievers didn’t get the job done, the closer might not have a lead to protect.

The Phillies have been reluctant to designate a closer for years. This season they’ve taken it to a whole new level, mixing and matching as circumstances and matchups dictate. They can do that because they have a smorgasbord of good options in the bullpen, and Wednesday night’s 4-3 win over the Dodgers illustrated that perfectly.

With the help of some shaky Dodgers defense, the Phillies took a 4-2 lead into the top of the seventh. With three righthanded hitters due up, righty Orion Kerkering came in to start the inning. At the same time, manager Rob Thomson was acutely aware that, if Los Angeles was able to extend the inning, Shohei Ohtani would bat fourth.

Sure enough, with the lefthanded-hitting two-time MVP strolling toward the plate, the Dodgers had runners on first and third and just one out. Thomson summoned lefthander Matt Strahm, who not only struck out Ohtani but also retired Teoscar Hernandez. It was a save for Strahm everywhere but in the record books.

“I just wanted to stick with who I am and attack,” he said with a huge grin. “Attack is all I do. Throw strikes. Obviously, you’re aware of who’s in the box. He’s one of the greatest ever to pick up a bat. So it’s cool.”

It was only after getting Hernandez to line out, though, that he allowed his emotions to show.

“You saw it all come out after Hernandez,” he said. “You know you’re in there to get two outs. Yeah, it’s Ohtani for the first one but I’ve got to make sure I get the second one. The second one is the most important.

“Big moment in the game. It’s what we play the game for. One of the core memories of my big league career is that I got to come in to Fenway Park with the bases loaded and face David Ortiz.”

And what happened?

“It was like a 114 mile an hour ground ball for a double play,” he recalled happily. “I remember it very vividly. Drew Butera called a curve ball. I shook him. Called the curve ball again. Shook him. He turned his head sideways, gave me the heater and that’s what I wanted.”

The Phillies had a lead to protect, truthfully, because they got a couple assists from the baseball gods.

It began with the score tied at two when Whit Merrifield led off against starter Gavin Stone with a routine fly to center. Except that, between the lights and the gathering dusk, Dodgers outfielder Andy Pages never saw it. As he spread his arms helplessly the ball dropped behind him as Merrifield rolled into third with a triple.

The Dodgers pulled their infield up and, two ground balls later, Merrifield was still at third. But the third grounder, hit by Trea Turner, was the charm. Shortstop Miguel Rojas couldn’t pick the ball up cleanly. If he had, it would have been a close play at first, but the official scorer awarded the speedy Turner a hit. Merrifield scored easily.

With the inning still alive, Alec Bohm doubled and Bryson Stott beat out a slow roller to second to bring Turner home with the second run of the inning.

And then Jose Alvarado and Jeff Hoffman closed it out. Just the way the Phillies planned it. It’s just that it’s a plan that can change nightly.

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