The news of the day, announced in a media availability Friday in Atlanta by Phillies manager Rob Thomson, was every bit expected as it was unexceptional.
“Ranger will start Game 1, followed by Wheeler and Nola, and then after that, we’ll figure it out,” Thomson informed.
That’s Phillies third starter Ranger Suarez, whose frequent career injuries haven’t kept him from being one of the more intriguing pitchers on the staff. That he gets a plum assignment against the Atlanta Braves’ best pitcher, Spencer Strider, in the opener of the National League Division Series Saturday evening? Nothing unusual there for the Phillies’ flexible mound weapon.
“I feel very happy to be the guy starting for us,” Suarez said Friday. “It’s an honor. I know that it hasn’t been the best season of my career. I was away for a couple of months due to injuries, but I’m mentally ready for this game. I feel good. I think it’s going to be a beautiful day tomorrow.”
For the Phillies, a beautiful day would be any day they win a playoff game. But for this opener of the best-of-five series, they are not only facing the Braves’ best pitcher in Strider, but perhaps the only effective and healthy rotation fixture the Braves have.
Max Fried is expected to come off the injured list in time to start Game 2 Monday, but it’s unknown how effective he can be from his recent layoff with a finger blister.
Charlie Morton won’t be coming back from his hand injury in time to pitch in this series. Hence the Braves have to count on Strider to do what Strider does, which is usually to power through opposing lineups. That’s why he was 20-5 this year.
But imagine the pressure on the Braves if the Phillies manage to win this first game? They have their top two starters, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, who powered through Miami in back to back Wild Card wins, going in games 2 and 3 of the short series. At least Suarez seems to be imagining it all.
“It’s no secret that the Braves are a really good team,” he said. “They have really good hitters, the champion bat. They have possibly the National League MVP (Ronald Acuna Jr.), too. So to me, it’s just a matter of executing, doing the right things. So I know it’s going to be a tough game, but I’m ready for a challenge.”
Suarez may not have pitched against the Braves this season, but he was an important postseason participant a year ago. He appeared in five games during the Phillies’ run to the World Series, three of them starts. Just as he’s going to do Saturday, he started Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves. He lasted only four innings, but the Phillies would come out on top, 7-6.
Suarez got better as the playoffs went on. He wound up with a 2-0 postseason mark with one save and a 1.23 ERA.
“We all know that the moment’s not going to be too big for Ranger,” Thomson said. “He’s a pretty cool cucumber out there. So we’re confident in that.”
Then there’s Strider, with 20 wins and the league’s best strikeout total of 281.
“It’s just the stuff; I mean, it’s just power,” Thomson said. “It’s an electric fastball, 96 to 99 (mph). The slider’s a weapon. And now he’s throwing the change-up to left-hand hitters, and he’s throwing strikes. So you have that combination. And he’s a bear to handle at times.”
Added Kyle Schwarber: “He’s got an electric fastball and has plus off-speed pitches off that electric fastball. So I think the biggest thing for us is trying to get him, one, in the strike zone. And two, when he is in the strike zone, we do take that swing and we don’t want to miss it. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”
Meanwhile, Suarez is looking forward to being himself on the mound, a crafty left-hander who has the ability to keep his team in games, provided he’s out there long enough.
“Something I would like to do different is go deeper in the game,” Suarez said. “If I remember correctly, I pitched three innings or so last year. I would like to pitch five or six innings this time.”
Source: Berkshire mont