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Not on Topp of His Game

A questionable decision leads to swings that swing NLDS Game 2.

MLB: NLDS-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

One night after turning in a managerial gem, Rob Thomson is the goat, or at least one of them. A manager’s reputation is, to some degree, at the mercy of his players; there’s a parallel universe not far off from our own in which a different pitch is selected, or a swing is just late, and Thomson’s managerial decisions tonight fade into the aether, not to be discussed again. But we do not live in this world, and so we must discuss the major managerial decisions in Game 2’s high-wire act.

Brandon Marsh pinch-hits for Pache, Top 7th

A relatively simple decision: Pierce Johnson, a righty, was on the mound, so Thomson calls in Marsh for the matchup advantage. Marsh struck out, making the decision something of a wash, but the logic was sound and unobjectionable.

Zach Wheeler remains in with Jeff Hoffman and José Alvarado warmed up, Bottom 7th

Wheeler was throwing a gem, but his velocity was dropping and his time was growing short. Thomson knew this, hence the bullpen action. The question was when, precisely, to pull him. Wheeler allowed a hit to Matt Olson to start the inning, but was not pulled. He had enough left in the tank to produce a swinging strikeout of Marcell Ozuna. And this was apparently enough to convince Thomson to let him keep going. Travis d’Arnaud came to the plate and took Wheeler deep for a 2 run shot. Too late to avert the wounding, Thomson called in Alvarado to stop the bleeding.

Challenge Foul Pop out for Kyle Schwarber (Call Stands), Top 8th

In celebration of the impending hockey season, we got a replay to determine if there was contact with a net. You get an extra challenge in the postseason. Might as well try.

Alvarado remains in, replaced with Jeff Hoffman after 1 out, Bottom 8th

Thomson allowed Alvarado to come back out for the bottom of the 8th, where he quickly retired Michael Harris II. But that out came on solid contact, and the top of the order was coming up. Alvarado was replaced with Hoffman, who put Ronald Acuña Jr. on base with a hit by pitch and induced a soft grounder for Ozzie Albies. That brought up Austin Riley, who hit what proved to be the game winning homer on a slider. The decision-making here by Thomson was solid; Alvarado had a small workload in the 7th and was capable of going a bit more, Hoffman has been deeply reliable all year. The pitch selection and execution was questionable. But that was not under Thomson’s direct control.

Although the backbreaker came in the bottom of the 8th, it would be fair to say that the pivotal moment from a managerial perspective came an inning earlier, with the decision to gamble on Wheeler being able to go just a bit more. The decision is not wholly unreasonable. Outside of the hit allowed to Olson, the scorecard showed few signs of trouble for Wheeler, and the strikeout suggested he might be able to push through the declining velocity for a bit longer. Running on fumes can look an awful lot like having gas in the tank, at least for a while. But to quote a famous Philadelphian, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Better to have the pitcher replaced before they allow a mess to form than to seek to limit a disaster in progress.

Of course, there is no guarantee that replacing Wheeler earlier would have won the game for the Phillies. It might have changed nothing at all, or resulted in an even bigger margin of defeat. But the pitcher in a hypothetical appearance remains forever unblemished. Rob Thomson will have tomorrow to consider what went wrong tonight. Wednesday is a homecoming.