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Phillies Notebook: As Phils ponder Ranger’s role, Brad Hand looms large on left side

HOUSTON — A day after Rob Thomson went for broke with his bullpen, he got cagey on Saturday.

Asked if Ranger Suarez might be available again after his turn of work Friday, Thomson opted for the “everyone is available” line.

Suarez will likely start either Game 3 or 4 of the World Series in Philadelphia, the other going to a bullpen mashup fronted by Noah Syndergaard or Kyle Gibson. Thomson said he’ll have that decision after Game 2, which leaves open the chance of Suarez reprising his relief role after 11 pitches in Game 1.

One other important piece to the relief puzzle could help settle Suarez’s role: Brad Hand.

The lefty has had a rough go of late. He was pretty good all year, logging 45 innings with a 2.80 ERA, a 3-2 record and five saves in seven chances as a high-leverage option. He went on the injured list Sept. 25 for two weeks with left elbow tendinitis. But he returned for three scoreless outings against Atlanta in the NLDS before running into trouble in the NLCS. He allowed two hits and a run in Game 2 without recording an out, then surrendered a Juan Soto homer in Game 4 of the NLCS, though he got the win.

“The last couple outings have been a little bit scattered with his command,” Thomson said. “But I still have trust in him, because he’s a veteran presence. He’s been here before and he’s done it. So I have no problem putting him in a game in a big spot. We have other guys, too, that I have a lot of confidence in.”

Hand has struggled in the postseason, allowing 11 hits and seven earned runs in six innings in his career, including three appearances with Cleveland in 2018 and 2020.

He figures to be crucial in helping shrink the Astros batting order. Thomson’s bullpen strategy has hinged on pitting high-leverage relievers against the Astros’ middle-order left-handed bats: Three-hitter Yordan Alvarez and five-man Kyle Tucker. That duo faced Jose Alvarado in its third turn through the lineup in Game 1, Suarez in the fourth and Seranthony Dominguez in the fifth.

Tucker touched up Aaron Nola for two home runs in Game 1. He and Alvarez combined for 67 homers and 204 RBIs this year.

While righties Jeremy Pena and Alex Bregman have been reliable, Jose Altuve is just 4-for-37 this postseason, despite a ninth-inning single Friday. Designated hitter Trey Mancini is 0-for-16 in the playoffs. Dusty Baker pinch hit for him with two outs in the 10th and sat him for Game 2.

With all righties on the bench and the Astros firepower limited by Michael Brantley’s injury – forcing Alvarez, a great hitter but subpar fielder, into left field – the order can get shallow quick. It makes at-bats against Alvarez and Tucker all the more vital.

• • •

Zach Wheeler declared himself sore but good Friday for his start in Game 2, though he didn’t much care for follow-ups to that.

Wheeler got zinged by a Josh Bell comebacker in Game 5 of the NLCS, for what went as a 1-2-3 putout. The ball hit “just right off the inside of the knee” on his left (landing) leg. He shrugged it off to continue in the game.

“I think it was more of just like in the moment thing where it really hurt and of course the next couple days, but it’s fine now,” Wheeler said, pushing back on whether or not that constituted “lingering.”

Typically soft-spoken, Wheeler isn’t expecting the atmosphere at Minute Maid Park Saturday night to throw him any curveballs.

“I’m sure the atmosphere is going to be pretty good here,” he said. “It’s inside. It’s the World Series. So I’m sure it’s going to be pretty loud. I’m sure their fans are looking forward to it. So, yeah, it should be pretty fun.”

• • •

Before his heroics Friday, etching his name alongside Carlton Fisk in the annals of postseason catching history, J.T. Realmuto took a foul tip flush to the face from Chas McCormick in the sixth inning that rattled his face mask off. It stung him pretty good.

“Honestly, my head wasn’t the problem,” Realmuto said. “It just smoked my jaw pretty good. It’s probably not going to be very easy for me to eat dinner tonight, but as long as my head’s okay, I’ll be good to go.”

Realmuto has carried such a heavy workload behind the dish, leading the big leagues with 1,131 innings caught in the regular season. It’s the second most in his career, trailing the 1,139 from 2019. Since 2018, only one other catcher (Willson Contreras in 2018) has topped 1,100 innings. Including playoffs, he’s caught 1,238.2 innings, some 26 games’ worth more than the next busiest, Houston’s Martin Maldonado.

Yet Realmuto is still slashing .267/.353/.489 with three homers, six RBIs and 11 runs in the postseason.

“I’m honestly not sure how my body is going to respond until the season is over because right now I’m running on so much adrenaline that I feel pretty great every night,” he said. “The training staff and the strength coaches have done such a great job with me all season long, having a program and keeping my body ready to play every day that, honestly, my body feels probably the best it has this time of year in a long time.”

“I mean, there’s really no other way to say this other than he’s just the real deal,” Nick Castellanos said. “There’s very few catchers – I mean, I haven’t been playing baseball very long, but long enough to know that to be able to catch as much as he does and to be able to perform the way he does and to steal bases and to take the extra base, even to hit an inside the park home run as a catcher (in Game 4 of the NLCS), it’s really, really impressive and he’s a hell of an athlete.”

• • •

NOTES >> The Phillies are 4-0 in Game 1s this year and have won seven straight, dating to the 2008 World Series. They’re 19-7 all-time in Game 1s, including 10-2 on the road. Alec Bohm: “This is a big momentum sport. Obviously, anytime you can go on the road in a playoff series and win Game 1 and start off on the right foot it’s big.” … The Phillies are just the eighth team to win at least 10 of their first 12 postseason. Five of the previous seven won titles. … Teams were 5-220 all-time in the World Series when facing a five-run deficit before Friday and 4-111 when down 5-0. Four of the previous five winners went on to win the Series.

Source: Berkshire mont

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