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Starters setting the tone but Phillies' bullpen also spectacular of late

Starters setting the tone but Phillies' bullpen also spectacular of late originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Starting pitching has been the Phillies' special sauce all season and was again Friday night in a series-opening win over the Nationals. Zack Wheeler carried them into the eighth inning, allowed two runs on three hits and lowered his ERA to 2.52.

It was the Phillies' league-leading 26th quality start of the season in their 46th game. It took them 67 games last season.

The Phillies' staff has averaged 6.0 innings per start, which might not sound like much but certainly is in this day and age. It comfortably leads the majors and the league average is 5.3.

Starting pitching has been the foundation, it's been the tone-setter, but the Phillies' bullpen has been nearly as impactful. They would not be 32-14 if that group wasn't protecting leads at such a high rate. They're 27-1 when leading after six innings.

The bullpen hasn't received as much fanfare because the numbers aren't quite as eye-popping, which is only the case because of Opening Day against the Braves and a string of shaky performances from guys no longer on the roster like Connor Brogdon and Ricardo Pinto.

Jose Alvarado allowed a career-high five runs in less than an inning against the Braves in the first game of the year. He's pitched 20 times since and has a 1.45 ERA. He's gone 10 straight outings without a walk and issued just one in his last 15 appearances.

Jeff Hoffman, who seems to have seized the right-handed portion of the closing tandem with Alvarado, has allowed two earned runs all season, in a game the Phillies came back to win in early April in St. Louis. He has a 0.90 ERA, and his opponents have hit just .162 in 286 plate appearances since he joined the team last season.

Matt Strahm, like Alvarado, had an uncharacteristic afternoon on Opening Day, allowing two runs to the Braves while recording one out. He's responded with 17⅔ scoreless innings, striking out 28 and walking one.

Alvarado is one of the toughest at-bats in baseball for left-handed and right-handed hitters alike because he has a sinker that moves one way at 98-plus mph and a mid-90s cutter that travels in the opposite direction.

Strahm is an uncomfortable AB as well because of his extension, deceptiveness and movement. Rob Thomson thinks Strahm's fastball has played up this season because he hasn't been used as a starter the way he was last April.

"His command is better," Thomson said. "The gun doesn't tell you but the life on his fastball is much better. Just from the side, it looks like the ball's jumping out of his hand. You look up and it's 93, you're expecting to see 96.

"Starting last year, getting all that work early in the season took a toll on the life of his fastball."

Strahm and Hoffman have been incredible so far in 2024, even better than a year ago when they solidified themselves as versatile high-leverage arms. Orion Kerkering has also produced, allowing two runs in 12⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and under a baserunner per inning.

These weren't big-name relievers signed to huge contracts to come in and fix a bullpen. Alvarado overcame control issues to earn everything that's come his way. Strahm overcame injuries to fulfill his potential. It took Hoffman, the ninth overall pick in 2014, four organizations and nine seasons to find himself.

Alvarado and Strahm have since signed extensions taking them through at least the end of 2025, and Hoffman has to be high on the Phillies' list of priorities as the only key player set for free agency after the season.

Since May 1, the Phillies' bullpen has a 1.99 ERA, .198 opponents' batting average and 1.01 WHIP, ranking in the top five in the majors in each category.

It's hard to play or to pitch much better than the Phillies have these last five weeks, but just imagine what this all might look like if Seranthony Dominguez or Gregory Soto ever recapture consistent strike-throwing ability.

"It's like we've got four or five closers down there that have been in that role at some point," Thomson said. "They all have power stuff. It's huge. It allows you to be flexible."