Rob Thomson’s often-aggressive pitching changes have been a major reason the Phillies made it as far as they did in the postseason. But his decision in Game 6 of the World Series to remove Zack Wheeler is certain to be the one that stands out the most.
With runners on the corners and Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez coming up in the bottom of the sixth, Thomson went to the bullpen, bringing in Jose Alvarado to pitch in a lefty-lefty matchup. The decision immediately backfired; Alvarado served up a go-ahead, three-run home run to Alvarez that proved to be the series-winning runs for Houston in a 4-1 victory.
The call to bring in Alvarado, who had already struggled in the series, was certainly questioned by viewers, and even the Phillies’ starter admitted to being surprised.
“It caught me off guard a little bit,” Wheeler said, according to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers.
Zack Wheeler, on getting pulled: “It caught me off guard a little bit.”
— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) November 6, 2022
Thomson said after the game that he felt Wheeler was still pitching well but he preferred going lefty-lefty there.
“I thought Wheels still had really good stuff,” Thomson said, per Rogers. “It wasn’t about that. It was just I thought the matchup was better with Alvarado on Alvarez at that time.”
Wheeler had looked sharp to that point in the game. His fastball had topped out at 99.1 mph and averaged 97.9 mph. He was getting plenty of break on his pitches, and he was keeping a daunting Houston lineup in check.
But in the sixth, small plays proved to be costly. Catcher Martin Maldonado was hit by a pitch but was erased on a fielder’s choice grounder by Jose Altuve the next at-bat. Series MVP Jeremy Peña then singled up the middle to put runners on the corners. It was the hardest-hit ball off Wheeler all game (95.7 mph), but a double play could have gotten Wheeler out of the inning.
Up came Alvarez. Wheeler had faced Alvarez twice previously in the game and had gotten through him with relative ease. Alvarez flew out to left on the first pitch he saw from the Phillies flamethrower in the bottom of the first and popped out to short on the second pitch he saw in the next at-bat.
But Thomson wanted to go to Alvarado. This wasn’t the first time he made that move. He pulled Aaron Nola in the fifth inning of Game 4 when Alvarez came up with the bases loaded. That time, Alvarado hit him with a pitch to bring in a run. Alvarado then served up two more hits and a sacrifice fly before the inning was over, with the Astros going up 5-0.
This time, Alvarez had a chance to swing. Alvarado started him off with a pitch on the inner half of the plate, which Alvarez fouled off. Alvarado followed with a ball well outside and then a ball up and in. On the fourth pitch, Alvarado threw a sinker that caught well too much of the plate.
The batter who was second only to Aaron Judge in OPS during the regular season punished the mistake. Alvarez sent it 112.5 mph off the bat and 450 feet to dead center, giving Houston a 3-1 lead.
“When he hit the ball, the sound says, ‘OK, that’s gone,'” Alvarado said, per Rogers. “That pitch? Nothing moving. It didn’t move. If it moved, he had no chance.”
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Decisions like pulling Wheeler will almost always be second-guessed and nitpicked when they cost a team the World Series. The reasoning was to go with Alvarado. He was one of Philadelphia’s best relievers during the regular season and had held left-handed hitters to a .630 OPS. If he had gotten Alvarez to roll into a double play to end the inning and preserved the Phillies’ 1-0 lead, Thomson would have been hailed as a genius.
Sometimes, one mistake pitch is all it takes to flip the script.