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How long can Phillies get away with bullpen games in No. 5 spot in rotation?

How long can Phillies get away with bullpen games in No. 5 spot in rotation? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

WASHINGTON — Saturday was another bullpen game for the Phillies, their third of the season. It’s unclear how long they can get away with this — if they’re getting away with it at all — as they search for any sort of answer in the No. 5 spot in their rotation.

“I don’t know, I really don’t,” manager Rob Thomson said Saturday afternoon. “It’s difficult because if you have a game like last night, it really puts you behind.”

Zack Wheeler lasted just 3⅔ innings in Friday’s loss, which wasn’t what the Phillies expected or needed. Matt Strahm got the nod Saturday as an opener expected to pitch two or two-plus innings.

Despite the Phillies’ issues at the back of their rotation, they still do not plan to stretch Strahm back out at this time. He entered Saturday’s start just 5⅓ innings below his total from last season. The Phillies don’t want him to be spent by the All-Star break.

• They tried Bailey Falter for seven starts and one bulk appearance. He went 0-7 with a 5.13 ERA and was optioned to Triple A. Phillies decision-makers need to see him pitch better before returning him to the majors. Falter allowed three home runs in his first start with Lehigh Valley and has walked seven in 11 innings over his last two.

• Cristopher Sanchez made one major-league start on April 22 and allowed three runs in 4⅓ innings before being sent back to Triple A. Sanchez pitched six scoreless innings behind an opener this past Sunday but had allowed 20 runs and walked 19 in his prior 23 innings. He’s someone on the Phillies’ radar to provide length in a starting or bulk role if he can string together a few promising appearances.

Michael Plassmeyer, also on the 40-man roster, was placed on the minor-league injured list last week. A 26-year-old finesse lefty, Plassmeyer pitched very well in 16 starts at Triple A last season but has struggled mightily in 2023 with a 6.95 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in 44 innings with the IronPigs.

• Top prospect Andrew Painter has been sick for a week and won’t restart his throwing program until Monday. Painter had been throwing short bullpen sessions off flat ground in Williamsport. He still looks a couple months away, at least.

• Nick Nelson threw batting practice on Saturday as he tries to return from a glute/hamstring injury that first popped up in spring training. He made six starts from April 18 through May 13 before suffering a setback, but the Phillies are ramping him back up. He spent 2022 as their long reliever and could provide starting pitching depth this summer.

• Dylan Covey started in the No. 5 spot last weekend in Atlanta but was lit up for seven runs (five earned) on six hits and two homers in two-thirds of an inning.

In retrospect, the Phillies did not stockpile enough starting pitching depth over the offseason. They were relying on Falter’s strong second half and a 20-year-old Painter being ready to start in the majors less than two years after being drafted out of high school.

A lot has gone wrong since and they’re now in this spot, despite having a payroll of approximately $244 million, fourth-highest in the majors. There simply isn’t another starting candidate on the 40-man roster who isn’t listed above.

“We’ll get through (Saturday) and see where we go next time,” Thomson said.

The Phillies can skip the No. 5 spot in the rotation in their next cycle because they’re off Thursday. They may be able to get through the next seven games with their top four starters.

Ranger Suarez pitches the series finale against the Nationals Sunday with Aaron Nola, Taijuan Walker and Wheeler scheduled to pitch Monday through Wednesday at home against the Tigers.

The Phils could start Suarez, Nola and Walker next weekend at home against the Dodgers on normal rest, but if they do, they’d need to find a starter for the following Monday (June 12) in Arizona.