Phillies 7th straight home win pushes them past Braves atop NL East

Phillies 7th straight home win pushes them past Braves atop NL East originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Rob Thomson wasn’t wrong when he said that his starting pitchers have logged a lot of innings already this season. Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez all went into Friday night ranked among the top 15 heaviest workloads in all of baseball.

The question is whether the Phillies manager’s traditional baseball prescription – extra rest – is producing unexpected side effects.

Wheeler got an extra day off before his start Wednesday in Anaheim, labored and had to leave the game after five innings. Afterward he was outspoken in his opinion that being off his normal schedule had left him out of whack.

Nola had an additional two days off before facing the Giants to kick off a four-game wraparound series Friday night at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies won, 4-3, but the starter was gone after four innings, largely because he required a staggering 46 pitches to get through the second while allowing two runs on four walks and a double to San Francisco second baseman Theiro Estrada.

That crept close enough to the upper limit that the Phillies will allow a pitcher to throw in a single inning that righthander Jose Ruiz began warming up.

To put this in perspective, Nola went almost three years – 80 starts between September 17, 2020 and August 16, 2023 – without walking more than three batters in a game.

He’s averaged 2.4 walks per nine innings for his career.

“Four walks in an inning. That’s pretty brutal for me,” he said.

The Phillies have openly stated that their goal this season is to end the Braves streak of National League East titles at six. There are still five months to play but, for what it’s worth, Friday night’s win coupled with Atlanta‘s loss at Dodger Stadium puts them a half-game up on the Braves.

It’s the first time the Phillies have been ahead of Atlanta in the standings after the first week of the season since 2021. With Philadelphia at 22-11 and the Braves at 20-10, the rivals currently have the same .667 winning percentage.

Nola conceded he “didn’t feel too in synch” and didn’t deny that the extra rest could have been a factor. “But as the game went on, I started feeling a little bit better,” he said. “I just tried to slow things down.”

The turning point came with two outs and the bases loaded when he got Giants DH Jorge Soler to pop out. If Soler had reached, Thomson said, that very well could have been his last batter. And with Gregory Soto unavailable (he should be ready to go Saturday) that would have put a lot of pressure for the bullpen to cover the final 7 1/3 innings.

“That wouldn’t have been a good situation, so I’m glad I got out of that,” Nola said. “I’m glad I didn’t get pulled right there and was able to minimize the damage. All in all, I was lucky to keep the game to two runs.”

Nola allowed leadoff singles to leftfielder Michael Conforto and catcher Tom Murphy to open the third, but settled down after that to retire the next five batters he faced, three on strikeouts.

Five relievers took it home from there, allowing just one run. That came when Orion Kerkering loaded the bases with nobody out but was able to avoid a big inning when Soler grounded into a double play and Conforto lined out to the base of the wall in right.

Next up for the Phillies is Suarez. Who, you guessed it, will start Saturday with two extra days of rest.

We have too much starting pitching, said no manager ever. And that includes Thomson, even as he tries to figure out how to fit six starters (RHPs Wheeler, Nolas, Taijuan Walker and Spencer Turnbull plus LHPs Suarez and Cristopher Sanchez) into the five slots of a traditional rotation.

Organizations always talk about never having too much pitching, fully aware that it can be a fragile commodity and that a key injury or two can turn surplus into deficit almost overnight.

Still, Thomson admitted that he’s struggling with figuring out the best way to deploy his available arms. “It makes for very, very difficult decisions. As difficult a decision as I’ve had to make,” he said.

The most obvious logjam has occurred because Turnbull was supposed to be a stopgap solution when Walker went on the IL with an inflamed shoulder during spring training. In six starts, though, he’s 2-0, 1.67. At the same time, Walker isn’t going to lose his role because of an injury, especially after winning 15 games last season, the first of a 4-year, $72 million contract.

Adding to the degree of difficulty is the fact that Opening Day starter Wheeler has been outspoken about wanting to pitch every fifth day; the Phillies are off Thursday. And his wishes will factor into whatever happens going forward. “Absolutely,” the manager confirmed.

The fact that Nola wasn’t at his best Friday night doesn’t make that riddle any easier to solve.

So it will be Giants RHP Keaton Winn (3-3, 3.18) vs. NL Pitcher of the Month for April Suarez (5-0, 1.32) Saturday at 6:05 p.m., RHP Logan Webb (3-2, 2.98) vs. Walker (1-0, 8.53) Sunday at 7:10 p.m. on ESPN and TBA vs. Sanchez (1-3, 3.68) in the series finale Monday at 4:10 p.m.

Thomson has promised to reveal his answer to this conundrum Saturday. It seems likely that the Phillies will accommodate Wheeler by having him start against the Blue Jays Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, but there are no easy answers after that.