HOUSTON – Yordan Alvarez faced José Alvarado on Saturday night, and that at-bat will forever be cherished in this city. Minute Maid Park shook when Alvarez made contact. It nearly came down when the ball landed beyond the center field wall.
“I felt good,” Wheeler said late Saturday night in a quiet Phillies clubhouse.
Rob Thomson, the manager who replaced him with Alvarado, did so much right in both reviving the Phillies’ season and navigating them through the postseason. In the moment that mattered most, he removed his ace. The result was not only Alvarez’s titanic shot that lifted the Houston Astros to a 4-1 victory, delivering their second championship — and first (presumably) untainted — in the past six seasons.
In Houston, Alvarez’s swing lives forever. But in Philadelphia, it’s not Alvarado’s 99-mph fastball that has a legacy. It’s Thomson’s decision.
“It was a tough decision,” Thomson said. “But I went with Alvarado, you know? He beat him.”
That’s how postseason baseball works. The performances, as glorious and unlikely as they can be — and Alvarez was 2 for 21 in the World Series coming into the at-bat — sometimes become secondary. The decisions live on.
Who knows that? The man on the other side: Dusty Baker. The Dusty Baker who removed Russ Ortiz for the San Francisco Giants from Game 6 in 2002 — but not before he gave him the game ball as a keepsake. The Dusty Baker who left in Justin Verlander for the fifth inning of Game 1 of this series — and watched the Phillies turn a 5-0 deficit into a 6-5 win. The Dusty Baker who managed the 97th postseason game of his meandering and legendary career Saturday night — and finally got to hoist the trophy.
One side wrings its hands. The other thrusts them in the air. For once, the manager who made the move that backfired in the postseason wasn’t Baker.
Exhale, Dusty. You did it.
“I didn’t want to go Game 7 because Game 6 has been my nemesis,” Baker said, holding a giant champagne bottle in the Astros clubhouse. “I was like, ‘God dang, Game 6 again.’ I was like: ‘Please Lord. Don’t take us past Game 6 again.’
“Then when Yordan hit that ball to the moon out there, I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got action.’ ”
That action will bring so much joy across this sport, because after 96 previous postseason games — not to mention the 3,884 he managed in the regular season — a baseball lifer and baseball ambassador and baseball mind finally has his title. He knows what it’s like to feel star-crossed and flat unlucky. And he knows what it’s like to face the questions about what or who or how or why.
Those choices color this sport in a way they don’t others. Why did John McNamara stick with the hobbled Bill Buckner at first base when the Boston Red Sox had a healthy Dave Stapleton on the bench in 1986? Why did Grady Little stick with Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees? Why did Buck Showalter never use Zach Britton in the 2016 AL wild-card game? On and on.
That was Thomson’s territory Saturday night. This isn’t a second-guess. But it is a fun, healthy discussion — as long as you’re not from Philadelphia. What is a starter’s job these days? It’s certainly not to shake the catcher’s hand and thump his chest at the end of a game. In the 2022 regular season, starting pitchers averaged 5.20 innings pitched — recording fewer than 16 outs a night. Two decades earlier, in 2002, that average was 5.93. In 2012, it was 5.88.
That might not seem like a significant drop. It absolutely affects entire seasons and individual games. Times have changed, and that’s not news. But the push and pull on Saturday night, it has a life of it’s own — and will for years.
“Tough call,” Wheeler said. “I felt good. Honestly, I was caught off-guard.”
To be clear, Thomson — who took over for the fired Joe Girardi when this expensive and seemingly limited ballclub was floundering — did things by the book of 2022. Wheeler was working his way through the top of the Houston lineup for the third time. He began the bottom of the sixth by hitting the ninth-place hitter — catcher Martin Maldonado — with a pitch on the elbow, a pitch Maldonado practically leaned into.
“I guess that’s what easy outs do to get on base,” Wheeler said of the light-hitting Maldonado. “Get hit.”
After Jose Altuve hit into a fielder’s choice, Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena — an absolute revelation this postseason — scalded a single to center, and Altuve scooted to third.
The velocity of Wheeler’s fastball, which was down when he started Game 2, was back in Game 6. Before the sixth, he had allowed only a pair of singles and a walk. Only one of the Astros’ outs reached the outfield. He was on.
“He was outstanding,” Thomson said. “I mean, fastball was 98. It started to tick down a little bit at the end, but not alarming. Curveball, slider were good. … I don’t know how many bats he broke, but he was really, really good.”
Still, like almost all starters, Wheeler’s effectiveness drops when he faces a lineup a third time. Wheeler yielded a .609 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against teams the first time through, a .722 OPS the third time. That’s a real difference.
Plus, if you go further by the Book of 2022, Alvarez is a dangerous left-handed hitter, and Alvarado is left-handed. Never mind that Alvarez crushes pitches no matter who throws them — a 1.030 OPS against right-handers, .998 against lefties. For those who analyze the modern game, Thomson has so much more cover if he goes to the pen than if he sticks to his starter.
“I mean, he still had his good stuff,” Thomson said of Wheeler. “I just thought that that was a key moment in the game and that was a momentum swing. … I thought Alvarado had a chance to strike him out.”
So here was Thomson, walking toward the mound, pointing his left hand toward the bullpen. Wheeler stood on the mound and cocked his hip. Clearly, he wanted more. Might he have tried to talk his manager out of the move?
“Honestly, it just caught me off-guard,” Wheeler repeated.
When he handed the ball to his manager, he walked down the slope and onto the grass and put his glove over his mouth. What might he have been muttering? And when Alvarez absolutely obliterated Alvarado’s 99-mph, 2-1 fastball, he might have muttered more.
“It was tough,” Wheeler said. “Obviously, I wanted to be out there making pitches.”
Alvarado made the pitch that mattered most. A 1-0 lead became a 3-1 deficit. The Phillies, with Houston’s blazing bullpen at Baker’s disposal, were about done.
Think about that. For once, Baker got to go through his bullpen in cool, calm fashion — and won it all. Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly allowed one runner among them.
The result: a World Series title.
The Houston Astros didn’t win the World Series because Rob Thomson replaced Zack Wheeler with Jose Alvarado. That’s not the view from Houston, of course, because the Astros won 106 regular season games, and the Astros are a juggernaut.
Ask that question in the taverns and truck stops of the Delaware Valley, and the answer might be different. Postseason baseball is so enjoyable because of the performances that help define them, Valdez’s mastery, Alvarez’s power. But it’s the best among sports because, so often, the decisions behind the performances live on — in both perpetuity and infamy.