Sport: What Phillies manager Rob Thomson says he has learned in the aftermath of controversial World Series pitching decision

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It rained last Friday in Sebringville, Ontario, but that was OK. Rob Thomson didn’t have big plans anyway.

Phillies manager Rob Thomson during a team workout on Oct. 27 in Houston. © Yong Kim / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Phillies manager Rob Thomson during a team workout on Oct. 27 in Houston.

Under the slightest of different circumstances — two more wins for the Phillies instead of the Houston Astros — there may have been a parade through the center of town. Thomson lives there, roughly 100 miles west of downtown Toronto. Five months ago, he became the first native Canadian since 1934 to be a full-time manager of a major league team. Imagine if he had become the first to manage a World Series champion.

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But the Phillies lost in six games, so Thomson sneaked home for three sleepy days — and some long-overdue sleep — before returning to Philadelphia this past week to attend organizational meetings.

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“It was just nice to get home and sit in my chair and just relax and think about stuff — and get some sleep,” Thomson said the other day. “Because it was a really good run, but you don’t sleep much, you know?”

Tell us about it.

No, really, tell us. Tell us what a decompressing manager thinks about while lounging in that comfortable recliner, maybe with a cold beverage in one hand and a Maple Leafs game on the television.

Does he recount the highlights from his first season as a manager? Or think about the future? (Pitchers and catchers report in less than 90 days, you know.) Or relive the genius-level in-game decisions, and the ones that blew up in his face?

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“Well, you might be alluding to Game 6,” Thomson said, “when I took Wheeler out of the game.”

Ah, yes, that decision. OK, since Thomson brought it up (sort of, but not really), and two whole weeks have gone by, let’s review the fateful move to pull Zack Wheeler after 70 pitches in favor of José Alvarado, who gave up the three-run home run to Yordan Alvarez that shook Minute Maid Park and all but delivered the championship for the Astros.

In transporting back to that moment — “Sixth inning, we’re up 1-0, first and third, one out,” Thomson said — the manager made two things clear:

First, although the Phillies decided before the series that they would use Alvarado against lefty-swinging Alvarez in the first high-leverage situation of a game — and the hard-throwing lefty entered Games 1, 4, and 5 in the fifth inning twice and sixth inning once — Thomson doesn’t believe he lifted Wheeler as a reflex or based on a preordained strategical maneuver.

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And second, he would make the same move again next time.

“Crowd’s getting into it now,” Thomson said, all but putting himself back in the visitors’ dugout in Houston. “I really felt like that was the momentum changer in that game, and that we needed a strikeout. We couldn’t let them tie the game. Because I felt like, if we let them tie the game, the momentum shifts completely to them, and we’re probably going to lose. We need to shut these guys out.”

The Phillies' Rob Thomson was the first Canadian-born manager in the World Series. © Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS The Phillies' Rob Thomson was the first Canadian-born manager in the World Series.

Maybe if the Phillies had been hitting — they scored a total of three runs in the last three games of the series — Thomson would have felt less urgency in that moment. Maybe not. We’ll never know. Neither will he.

Thomson’s conviction won’t make Phillies fans feel much better. And lifting your best pitcher when he appeared to have more left to give after 5⅓ dominant innings is nearly impossible to defend.

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But at least Thomson appears to have gone with his gut based on what he was feeling in the moment and not some paint-by-numbers pre-series strategy session.

In breaking down the ultimate move gone wrong, the 59-year-old longtime coach, who had managed only once previously and not since 1995 in A-ball in Oneonta, N.Y., also believes he learned something about himself.

“My brother asked me, he said, ‘So, what was it like in the World Series?’” Thomson said. “And I said, ‘Well, it really felt like the World Series before the game and after the game, but during the game, it was just the game.’ I learned that even though it’s a World Series game, I could relax and think clearly.

“And the second part of that is that I can handle adversity. Because I know there’s a lot of adversity, taking Wheeler out of that game and putting Alvarado in. Until that type of major thing happens, you don’t know really if you’re going to be able to handle it or not. And I can. Because I just believed in that move, and that’s OK.”

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It’s important because Thomson is bound to face more adversity. He received a two-year contract extension through 2024, and the rest of his tenure, however long it lasts, won’t always be as auspicious as this season.

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Phillies manager Rob Thomson raises his left arm to make the fateful call for Jose Alvarado to replace Zack Wheeler in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Alvarado promptly allowed a three-run homer to Houston's Yordan Alvarez. © Yong Kim / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Phillies manager Rob Thomson raises his left arm to make the fateful call for Jose Alvarado to replace Zack Wheeler in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Alvarado promptly allowed a three-run homer to Houston's Yordan Alvarez.

After Thomson took over for deposed Joe Girardi on June 3, the Phillies promptly won eight consecutive games and 14 of 16. They lost Bryce Harper for the summer but knew his broken thumb would heal in time for him to come back down the stretch. Even in September, when they stubbed their toe in pursuit of a wild card, they never actually relinquished their hold on the final National League playoff spot.

Thomson proved to have the right touch, projecting his calming personality on the clubhouse. He eased stressful situations for young players with a disarming sense of humor, joking with Alec Bohm about being afraid to bat third and kidding infielder Nick Maton about not messing things up in his first-ever start in right field. “Topper” was on such a hot streak that Nick Castellanos said after Game 1 of the World Series, “I trust anything that man does.”

Wheeler repeatedly said after Game 6 that he was “caught off guard” by Thomson’s move. Nobody else seemed to be. Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, and other team leaders noted that Thomson managed the same way that he had all series.

Thomson said he didn’t meet individually with Wheeler after Game 6. Chances are, they will talk within the next few weeks. In his speech to the players after Game 6, Thomson pledged to give them at least two weeks to themselves before checking in with texts and phone calls.

Beyond that, Thomson will do what he normally does in the offseason. Spend time with his wife and family. Sit in his comfortable chair. Watch his beloved Leafs on television. Leave for spring training on Feb. 1, not a day later.

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And when he does resume the day-to-day business of managing the Phillies, it will be with as much self-confidence as he’s had since the day he got the job. Because if you can face the criticism over taking out your best pitcher too soon in the deciding game of the World Series and emerge with the resolve that you did what you thought was right in the moment, what can’t you handle?

“I can sort of handle this process, handle this routine, that I wasn’t really used to,” Thomson said. “Right now, that’s probably the thing that stands out the most because that’s what I was worried about the most going into it.”

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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