David Murphy: With Phillies starters, the case for rest

Posted: April 05, 2012

PITTSBURGH - With the late-afternoon shadows creeping Eastward across the playing surface at PNC Park, Cliff Lee reared back on a bullpen mound and unleashed a fastball that crossed home plate with a leathery smack. Behind him, Rich Dubee nodded, a red cap pulled low on his forehead.

The regular season officially starts Thursday, but the three men who offer the most reason for optimism about this Phillies team have been in game mode for most of the last week. Roy Halladay will take the mound for the third straight Opening Day. After an off day Friday, Lee will face the Pirates on Saturday. Then, after a Sunday start by second-year righthander Vance Worley, Cole Hamels will square off against Marlins righthander Anibal Sanchez in the home opener Monday at Citizens Bank Park.

Four games, three starts by potential Cy Young candidates. The key, of course, is to keep it that way. So don't be surprised to see the Phillies erring on the side of caution as they divvy up the workload among their starters. With 2 off days in the first week of play, Dubee and Charlie Manuel have the ability to go until April 15 before they call on No. 5 starter Joe Blanton. But logic suggests that they will use the early down time to get some extra rest for the horses who will be tasked with carrying the team throughout the season.

"The stronger you can keep them during the course of the season, on the back side of your schedule they'll be stronger," Manuel said Wednesday before the Phillies held a workout at PNC Park in advance of the season opener.

Judging by the results they witnessed last season, Manuel and Dubee would be wise to sail a similar tack. Halladay allowed just one home run in his last 10 starts of 2011, striking out 68 and walking 16 while posting a 2.14 ERA in 71 1/3 innings. Lee was even better: 77 2/3 innings, 79 strikeouts, 10 walks, four home runs and a sparkling 0.93 ERA over his last 10 starts.

It might not be a coincidence that the Phillies spent the first 4 months of the season attempting to get their two veteran aces as much rest as possible. Heading into those last 10 starts of the season, Halladay had enjoyed at least 1 extra day of rest in 11 of his 23 starts. The year before, when he allowed 10 home runs and a 3.10 ERA in his final 10 starts, Halladay had entered the stretch with an extra day of rest in eight of 22 starts. Likewise, when Lee allowed seven home runs and a 4.68 ERA in his final 10 starts of 2010 for Texas, he had started the season with an extra day of rest in only eight of 18 starts. Last year, he had an extra day in 11 of his first 22 starts.

The Phillies' philosophy seems clear: In an era where so much talk surrounds a starter's pitch count, the wiser focus is on the rest he gets on the days in between. Last year, Lee threw at least 120 pitches in six starts, the highest total in the National League. Halladay did so five times, the second-highest total. Only four other pitchers reached the 120-pitch mark more than twice.

"When the game starts, I try to win the game," Manuel said. "Dubee definitely has to do some talking during the game at times, because to me, the biggest thing is to win that game on that day."

With an offense that is missing two of its biggest producers and a bullpen that has some health question marks of its own, the best way to win will once again involve Halladay, Lee and Hamels pitching into the latter innings of games. Manuel said Wednesday that he does not anticipate altering the way he handles the soon-to-be 35-year-old Halladay during games.

But he also knows that for all of the injuries the Phillies have endured over the past couple of years, they have been fortunate when it comes to the health of their top-of-the-rotation stars. Last year, they were one of 10 teams in the majors to feature three starters who pitched at least 32 games. If the Phillies can find a way to consistently score runs and protect leads, Manuel might be afforded the luxury of limiting pitch counts.

Until then, an extra day off between starts will remain his preferred method of prevention.

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com

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