Friday night, Cristopher Sanchez started the game by getting an out before allowing a walk and a double to the following two batters. After getting the next out on a strikeout, Sanchez was aided by a sterling play from Bryson Stott to keep the Marlins off the board for that inning and the subsequent four innings Sanchez pitched. He was excellent after five innings, yet was still removed from the game with a 2-0 lead and a fully rested bullpen.
It did not end in victory as the bullpen coughed up home runs to Miami to allow them to take the game and shrink the Phillies’ lead in the wild card race at the time. While disappointing, that start by Sanchez started to push him further into the conversation about who might start a game three in a playoff series the team might play. Everyone would like them to avoid any such game in the first place, but should the Phillies need him, Sanchez is really starting to look like the more viable option Rob Thomson has.
The two pitchers that Sanchez would be fighting for haven’t exactly been on the top of their game of late. Before Sunday’s masterful performance, Ranger Suarez had gone through a stretch in July and August where he made eight starts, going 46 1⁄3 innings on the mound to a tune of a 4.66 ERA (4.84 FIP) with 39 strikeouts, but an uncharacteristic 20 walks. He went on the injured list after his start on August 13, but his return on September 3 didn’t instill confidence. The start Sunday calmed some nerves, of course, but subjectively, Suarez hasn’t been the razor sharp Ranger we saw at the end of last season.
Taijuan Walker has been just as frustrating. While he past five starts don’t look so bad on the box score, a little further digging shows a pitcher that labors just to get through five innings. That bears out a bit when you see he’s walked six, two, two, three and five batters in his last five starts, showcasing a struggle with his command during this stretch. His first inning struggles this year have been pretty apparent, but would that issue alone be enough to have Thomson look for someone else to start on those days?
Sanchez, meanwhile, just keeps chugging along. His job seems to be pretty simple: keep the game close for five innings before giving way to the bullpen. It hasn’t been pretty in the past six starts (32 2⁄3 innings, five walks, 32 strikeouts, 4.13 ERA/4.15 FIP), but it has kept the team close enough that they’ve taken four of those six starts. His last start was five innings where he scattered four hits, walked one, struck out four before being lifted earlier than many would have liked for him to be. However, the logic in trying to limit his innings does at least make sense.
With his start today in Atlanta, it’s almost like an audition for the playoffs for Sanchez. Suppose the team makes it to the wild card round. It’s pretty safe to assume that Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola will get the first two starts. That game three will be an all hands on deck situation, no matter who the starter may be. Each option to start - Suarez, Walker and Sanchez - all have some questions marks to their game, yet still have interesting cases to make for that start.
Pro - did it last year, has been effective when healthy this year
Con - hasn’t been himself this year
Pro: has been pretty much as advertised, can look like their #2 when going well
Con: his first innings this year have been pretty bad
Pro: probably their second best starter of late
Con: innings max has been reached, no real playoff experience
These are just a few top of the head pros and cons, some of which you’d probably be able to add or subtract from. Even if you place any kind of weight on this totally subjective point of view, Rob Thomson believes in his veterans to do what they’ve done in the past, making it probable that Suarez would be the choice. Whoever it is with the ball under his hat in the clubhouse would clearly be on a short leash in a “win or go home” situation, but let’s think ahead to if they make it to the NLDS. A fourth starter will be needed and this where the decision between Sanchez and Walker would need to be made. There is the off chance that Thomson decides to switch gears with Suarez and utilize him as a hybrid reliever/starter during that series, which puts both Walker and Sanchez in play.
Tonight is a start to watch closely with regards to Cristopher Sanchez. He faces probably the best offense of the past decade for the first time, so seeing how he does against them could factor into a deeper discussion of his playoff role. The entirety of that discussion surely won’t focus on this lone start, but should he have any kind of success against the Braves, it would help his case tremendously.