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De George: Surrounded by top starters, Phillies’ Michael Mercado has chance to succeed

PHILADELPHIA — Michael Mercado will, in many ways, get to live a dream Tuesday.

The 25-year-old will make his first major league start at Wrigley Field when the Phillies visit the Cubs. He’ll have the advance notice to get family in the stands, most of whom watched the San Diego native make his big league debut last Monday in Detroit with a scoreless inning.

For the 2017 draft pick who eschewed a Stanford commitment, overcame Tommy John surgery and a pandemic that meant he went two years between minor league games and stagnated at Triple-A before the Phillies acquired him from Tampa at the end of 2023, it’s been a long road.

His debut may be as much of a dream as the job he’s stepping into, for the next few weeks and maybe more.

Mercado gets to join the best staff in baseball. His job, every fifth day for as long as the big club needs him, is to back four of the best starters in the league, to first do no harm and, if we’re honest, to just make sure any struggles on the hill only cost the Phillies one loss, not two or three worth of bullpen domino effects.

Mercado may be here for a time. Spencer Turnbull went on the injured list with the latest of myriad shoulder issues in his career that the Phillies reckon will cost him six to eight weeks, on the conservative side. Taijuan Walker’s finger will keep him out until at least the All-Star break. That leaves at least three turns of the rotation for Mercado to make an impact.

And by impact, we mean to eat his share of innings and just not turn the fifth day into a bullpen disaster that affects the Phillies’ ability to win on the other four days.

The stars around should lessen the pressure. Mercado joins the pitchers standing first, sixth, 10th and 34th in ERA in baseball. He’s throwing behind four of only 18 pitchers this year with at least five outings of seven innings or more. The Phillies have accounted for three of the league’s 15 complete games and three of its nine shutouts. They have the only three pitchers to allow one earned run or fewer in 10 starts each this year. The Phillies lead the league with 26 outings of seven or more innings (going 25-1), while Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Miami was their NL-leading 49th quality start.

So the Phillies don’t need Mercado to be the second coming of Roy Halladay. They just need him to not be Bailey Falter.

“I think he’s pretty poised anyway, just to begin with, just based on what I saw in Detroit,” manager Rob Thomson said. “But this will be a big start for him in Wrigley Field. I’m sure his parents would be flying in for that. So we’ll see how he reacts to it. But anytime these guys can put up the numbers that they’re putting up, it takes a lot of pressure off a lot of people.”

Mercado has taken to the Phillies’ tweaks to his arsenal. In 14 games (10 starts) at Lehigh Valley, he went 1-1 with a 1.71 ERA. Batters hit .189 against him with a 1.14 WHIP and two home runs allowed. He struck out 44 in 47.1 innings, if he did walk 23.

Mercado started the season with four scoreless relief outings before the IronPigs moved him into the rotation. He’s stretched out as far as 91 pitches in each of his last two outings at Lehigh Valley. Thomson said he wouldn’t push Mercado past the 90-pitch mark Tuesday.

The job would be easier if the offense was at full strength. Down three premier regulars – J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber – the onus is on the pitching staff to navigate the next few weeks. The Phillies survived the absence of Trea Turner for seven weeks and are treading water at 9-9 without Realmuto. But low-scoring games may end up being the norm, after four runs and 15 hits in two games since Harper and Schwarber went on the IL.

Mercado, in turn, can help lessen the pressure of postseason prep. Thomson is cognizant but not yet concerned that Ranger Suarez, baseball’s ERA leader, is on pace to top 190 innings, up from 125 last year and a career-high 155.1 in 2022. He has noticed that Cristopher Sanchez, sixth in the bigs in ERA, could surpass last year’s innings total in the bigs in his next outing and is on pace for about 180. He threw 149 between Triple-A and the majors last year.

Mercado could be many things. He could be a bridge to get someone like Turnbull, who was outstanding in April, rested and ready for a similar burst in October. He could eat innings and spare the bullpen many nights, especially if the division lead stays in the current comfortable zone. He could pitch like he did in Lehigh and renders Walker (and his big contract) and/or Turnbull surplus to requirements.

He enters that role knowing that he doesn’t have to be a savior, just a guy doing his job.

Contact Matthew De George at mdegeorge@delcotimes.com.


Source: Berkshire mont

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