Remember when having a starting pitcher take a no-hitter into the late innings made a manager’s job easier? When all he had to do was sit back, relax and root for his guy to claim a slice of baseball history?
Not anymore. Not in an era when the acceptable pitch limit has been downsized to barely three digits, advanced analytics has made third-time-through-the-order a mantra and a pitcher’s yearly salary can exceed the total annual payroll of a medium-sized company, dictating that his arm be treated with the same care given to Waterford crystal.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson faced that gut-churning decision twice this week, most recently Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park when Zack Wheeler completed seven innings with only two Tigers batters having reached base, one on a walk and after being hit by a pitch.
He had thrown 100 pitches. The Phillies led, 1-0.
What to do? What to do?
Spoiler alert: The Phillies won, 3-2. They have now won five straight. But only after Wheeler lost his no-hitter and his chance for a win in quick succession in the eighth. Only after the Phillies fell behind in the top of the ninth. Only when a furious walkoff comeback, capped by Kody Clemens driving the winning run with two outs in the bottom of inning, brought his teammates rushing out of the dugout to celebrate.
Thomson didn’t hesitate to send Wheeler back out to start the eighth. He needed just two pitches to retire Akil Baddoo on a grounder. Jonathan Schoop ripped the second pitch he saw down the third base line. Josh Harrison made a dazzling backhanded snag, but bounced his throw. Clemens was unable to handle cleanly. After a dramatic pause, the official scorer ruled it a throwing error.
Wheeler worked a 1-2 count to Tyler Nevin, who then lined a clean single to right. Thomson immediately popped out of the dugout and waved Seranthony Dominguez in from of the bullpen.
“If he’d gotten through the eighth inning, that would have been a tough call,” the manager said. “The max he’s had this year is 111, I believe. So I probably would have let him to go 120, something like that, if it was still intact.”
Said Wheeler: “I knew what was going on. I was trying to get in and out of there. Especially as you get a little deeper and you see the pitch count and all that type of stuff. In the eighth inning I was trying to pitch to contact a little bit more than I was the rest of the game just so I could have a better chance of getting out there for the ninth if the occasion arose.”
And, yes, he would have tried to persuade Thomson to let him stay in the game.
“At least let me go out there, see what I can do,” he said. “Obviously, everybody wants to throw a no-hitter. But at the same time, you have to play it smart. It’s a long season. Ultimately we want to win the World Series. That’s what matters. That’s what I want to be there for."
“So the personal stuff is nice and good. But at the same time, you have to look at the big picture.”
Thomson has had some practice looking at the big picture lately. Aaron Nola had a no-hitter working with two outs in the seventh inning on Monday and the manager had already begun to think about how many pitches he’d allow him to throw. Taijuan Walker didn’t allow his first hit until after there was one out in the fifth on Tuesday.
Wheeler was coming off what was, by almost any measurement, the second-worst start of his Phillies career. He lasted just 3 2/3 innings while allowing seven earned runs on eight hits and three walks against the Nationals.
Thomson called it “kind of a weird day” because he thought the righthander had good stuff and executed well. “They just barreled him up for some reason,” the manager said with a shrug, adding that the telltale hint for him was that Wheeler got only one swing-and-miss on his fastball.
He got four in the first two innings Thursday night. That was a clue of what was to follow.
Wheeler began methodically mowing down Tigers hitters on a cool, cloudy evening. After all, the Tigers rank last in baseball in runs scored and lost their best hitter, Riley Greene, a week ago.
Thomson insisted the pressure of making the tough decisions about how long to stick with a starter who’s working on a no-hitter isn’t keeping him up at night. In fact, he wouldn't mind at all having to do it more often.
“It’s good to have those problems, really. We’ll figure it out when the time comes,” he said with a laugh.