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The Month of Living Dangerously: Charlie Manuel and the Phillies’ High Pitch Counts

Even before Phillies manager Charlie Manuel left Roy Halladay out on the mound for 130 pitches in the finale of a four-game sweep over the Padres Sunday, the Phils skipper was drawing some raised eyebrows for his heavy reliance on his superstar rotation through the early going: Cliff Lee throwing 111 pitches in his very first start, Halladay going 123 in his third, Cole Hamels throwing 126 Friday night in San Diego. Yes, it’s worked: the Phils have baseball’s best record at 15-6, and have won 9 of their last 13 games despite not scoring more than four runs in any of them. But the argument against is that these are pitchers on whom the Phils hope to count for approximately 250 innings each between now and late October; working them harder up front might mean a diminution of quality at the back end, when they hope to be playing for much higher stakes.

While this is true—and while I probably wouldn’t have let any of them go over 120 in the first month—Manuel might have a few good reasons for relying so heavily on his starters. The rotation is the one unit of his team on which he can fully rely right now, given injuries and ineffectiveness in the bullpen and lineup. They’re holding the line while he waits for reinforcements: Chase Utley and potentially Domonic Brown in the lineup, Jose Contreras (assuming his forearm strain is on the mild side) and J.C. Romero and eventually, hopefully Brad Lidge among the relievers.

There’s a baseball truism vaguely affiliated with Billy Beane and "Moneyball" that goes something like this: a team spends the season’s first two months figuring out what it has, the next two months getting what it needs, and the last two months going pedal-to-the-metal for a playoff berth. Right now, Manuel has a lot to figure out: whether or not Raul Ibanez is cooked, if Ben Francisco can produce like a corner outfielder on a championship team, if John Mayberry Jr. deserves a bigger role, who among Antonio Bastardo and David Herndon and Kyle Kendrick—and now, Michael Stutes—he can trust with high leverage innings in front of Ryan Madson. (You probably could throw whether he can trust Madson to close into the mix too.) 

Assuming the next couple months go well—that Utley comes back at his accustomed level, the Phils find two solid corner outfielders between Ibanez, Francisco, Brown and Mayberry, and the bullpen solidifies with the excellent-thus-far Bastardo continuing to dominate, one or two of the other young arms stepping forward and the injured veterans returning to action—the Phils will have ways to win games beyond requiring seven or eight innings from one of the Aces. Likewise, a trade or internal infusion of talent could change the calculus. At that point--if we get to that point--I'm guessing we won't see many games where a Phillies starter throws more than 110 or 115 pitches. 

But with all five pitching well right now and the schedule featuring generally weak competition, the skipper might well be thinking that now is the time to ride his horses. It’s a risky approach: if one of them goes down for any length of time, the team is that much more exposed. But it’s also hard to fault a veteran manager of a veteran team for accentuating its demonstrated strengths.