The Philadelphia Phillies will continue their National League Championship Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night with Game 4. The Phillies, who suffered a disappointing loss in Game 3 on Thursday, still lead the best-of-seven series by a 2-1 margin. That advantage, in turn, makes them the favorites to win their second consecutive pennant. According to the website WhoWins, Major League Baseball teams who lead a best-of-seven series 2-1 have gone on to win said series on 70% of occasions.
Despite Thursday's crushing blow, the Phillies' lineup looks exactly the same on Friday night. Manager Rob Thomson has now trotted out this starting nine for each of the first four games in the series:
- Kyle Schwarber, DH
- Trea Turner, SS
- Bryce Harper, 1B
- Alec Bohm, 3B
- Bryson Stott, 2B
- J.T. Realmuto, C
- Nick Castellanos, RF
- Brandon Marsh, LF
- Johan Rojas, CF
Postseason baseball is prone to lineup changes borne from small-sample overreactions and what amounts to hopium. That doesn't stop teams from pursuing them. To wit, all three of the other remaining playoff teams have tweaked their lineups. The D-backs, for instance, moved young catcher Gabriel Moreno to the No. 3 spot for Game 3. While Thomson clearly disagreed, we think the Phillies had three valid reasons for making some alterations ahead of Game 4.
Give us a good, slow scroll as we explain.
1. It's a bullpen game for Arizona
The Phillies have faced right-handed starting pitchers in each of the first three games of the NLCS. That won't be the case on Friday, in part because the Diamondbacks will not use a traditional starter. They'll instead roll with a bullpen game that will be "opened" by veteran lefty Joe Mantiply.
Mantiply, a former All-Star, recorded four or fewer outs in 27 of his 35 appearances. His season-high in innings was three. Coincidentally, that came against the Phillies in mid-June as part of a blowout loss. (Mantiply entered that game with the Diamondbacks trailing by seven runs.) We suspect that Arizona manager Torey Lovullo will pencil Mantiply in to face Schwarber and Harper before giving way to a reliever, almost certainly a right-handed one.
Thomson, then, had to weigh a few variables. He knows Mantiply won't be around for long. He knows that Mantiply has historically struggled against right-handers (last season was the only time in Mantiply's career he's contained them to an OPS under .850 at the big-league level). But he also knows that Schwarber, Turner, and Harper -- his normal top three in the batting order -- have been his most productive hitters this series.
There are two schools of thought on how a team facing a bullpen game should go about constructing its lineup. One states that you arrange your lineup based on the first pitcher, since it's the only time you can be certain of the matchup. The other states that you arrange your lineup based on who will follow.
Based on one or both of these, Thomson decided that he's better off leaving the top three alone. Even if that means Mantiply faces two lefties before departing.
2. Bohm and Stott have struggled
A more serious consideration for Thomson might have begun after the top three. So far in this series, Thomson has entrusted Bohm and Stott to bat fourth and fifth. It's yet to pay off. Those two entered Friday with a combined 4 for 21 series, giving them two of the three lowest OPS among Phillies regulars.
Bohm and Stott each had a disappointing NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves as well, suggesting it might be time to make a flip. (Although, again, we're talking about what amounts to a week's worth of games here.) Had Thomson desired to make a change, he could have bumped either Realmuto or Castellanos to the No. 4 slot as a means of keeping his righty-lefty balance.
If Thomson is confident that Mantiply will be relieved by a righty after facing three or four batters, he may have toyed with sliding Marsh up in the lineup as well. Marsh has hit .348/.423/.609 this postseason. The risk is that Marsh has historically been vulnerable to left-handed pitching in a way that Stott has not. (Stott, in fact, has reverse platoon splits so far in his career.)
Again, none of this happened.
3. Prime spot for Pache?
We'll end with, well, the last spot in Thomson's order.
Thus far, it's belonged to Johan Rojas, an outstanding rookie defensive outfielder who performed well in his introduction to the majors. He hit .302/.342/.430 (111 OPS+) with a pair of home runs and 14 stolen bases on 15 attempts. His contributions were worth an estimated 2.4 Wins Above Replacement in 59 games, putting him on pace for more than six wins over 150 games.
Unfortunately, Rojas has scuffled in the postseason. Coming into Friday, he'd gone 2 for 32 with 12 strikeouts, one walk, and one extra-base hit (a double). That works out to a slash line of .063/.091/.094. Rojas hasn't yet stolen a base this month because he cannot swipe a bag unless he reaches to begin with.
At some point, though not Friday, Thomson may decide Rojas could use a day off to reset mentally. Should that come to pass, Thomson could turn to Cristian Pache, another high-quality defender who hit for a .924 OPS against lefties this season. Pache was terrible in limited action versus righties (.449), but then, the bar is relatively low given how Rojas has performed.
Besides, the beauty and agony of postseason baseball is that it doesn't always conform to the larger sample. Sometimes, no matter how well thought out lineups or gameplans appear to be, the playoffs are just a chaos machine.