PHILADELPHIA — The baseball gods wasted no time in giving Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson his first big managerial moment in the Fall Classic.
Five months after firing Joe Girardi, Thomson had already navigated the Phillies’ strong streak through the end of the regular season and three tough postseason runs, including a three-game wild-card streak no manager had faced. . Now, in Game 1 against the Houston Astros, Thomson made a quick decision.
After going down 5-0 early, his team had just tied the game in the fifth inning. Starter Aaron Nola, typically one of Philadelphia’s aces, had already been through 81 pitches and was clearly struggling — but going to the bullpen after the first 4.1 innings in a best-of-seven series was also too risky.
Thomson chose this risky move.
He pitched closer Jose Alvarado, who pitched the last two outs of the fifth and the first of the sixth. But the 58-year-old manager wasn’t done — he used his top four again to hold his side to a 6-5 away win.
“He’s got the pulse of it,” Phillies president Dave Dombrowski said the next day. “And he has my support.”
It was just the latest example of the masterful touch Thomson has shown during his first year at the helm of the Phillies – though his biggest moments will surely come as his team tries to stay alive in the World Series with a 3-2 lead in Game 6. occupies the Saturday night in Houston.
His message to the team may very well be what he told himself about his career. After all, this man was not on the fast track to management.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” Thomson said on Friday. “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing and focus on the little things. I always tell them, focus on the little things and the big things will happen.”
Big things happened for Thomson in June and they continue into October.
He already received a two-year extension after one partial season on the job. But while Thomson’s steadiness may seem unusual, it’s actually been honed over the years in the coaching staff, including six years as a bench coach with the Phillies and Yankees before that.
In fact, when Thomson took over for Girardi, it wasn’t the first time he considered leading the Phillies. Two years ago, when manager Gabe Kapler was fired, the organization hired then-head coach Thomson before reaching a mutual decision not to interview him.
“When we were hiring before Joe, we talked to him about taking the job,” Phillies owner John Middleton said. “And he said no. He said I don’t think I’m the one. I think you should go out and get somebody else.”
It was a pure Thomson who, according to those who knew him best, never politicked for a promotion.
“I agreed with them that they needed an experienced guy,” Thomson said.
So instead of taking the job, Thomson helped the front office select Kapler’s successor. But after Girardi brought a buttoned-down approach to the club, Middleton and Dombrowski knew they wanted something different — and who they wanted for it. It was Thomson’s time – at least they hoped it would be.
“When Dave started talking about the move in May,” Middleton recalled, “I told him, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to take the job.’ He didn’t feel he was the right guy for it (last time), which was obviously (turned out to be) a misjudgment.”
So why was Thomson this time open to the possibility of taking the job he had previously turned down?
“Different conditions,” he said.
What was wrong in 2019 suddenly seemed right. The team did not win under tight control with Girardi in place. A looser grip – in exchange for a lack of experience – turned out to be the right call.
“We haven’t had everybody feel like the best versions of themselves and when Thomson was able to come in, without putting pressure on him, he just went out and let him play baseball,” right fielder Nick Castellanos said.
But still, a World Series run — even a playoff run — was no sure thing, especially when Thomson took over a 22-29 team.
“You never know how a guy is going to react until he gets there,” Dombrowski said. “He made everything as smooth as possible. No situation was too much for him. He even kept his gruff nature. You could never ‘expect that calm.’
With Thomson, you can get close. ‘Even-keeled’ is used to describe him so much that it could be his first name. It’s something he’s learned over the years in the dugout, and it’s come in handy as the stakes have risen throughout the postseason.
“I think earlier in my career, I wasn’t as smooth as I am now,” Thomson said. “You learn these moments and you know you can’t control things and why you worry about certain things. I think just the experience of going through all these different moments over a 30-year career just kind of teaches you, to be smooth.”
His players agree: Time in the dugout is important, they say, even if it’s not the man in charge.
And Thomson has been at it for decades, coaching in the minor leagues for the Tigers and Yankees before becoming Girardi’s bench coach in New York in 2008. Then to the Phillies for the same job under Kapler in 2018.
“With him comes a lot of experience, a lot of big games, a lot of superstar players managing, just every step he takes,” Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm said. “So I think when he took over, he was definitely ready. It didn’t seem like growing pains or anything to me.”
Current bench coach Mike Calitri added, “He’s the most prepared person I’ve ever been around. . . . His ability to be calm and composed rubs off on the whole team.”
The Thomson soundboard keyboard is in the games. He is the voice behind the manager. He was also part of the thought process that was offensive in Game 1.
“We felt some momentum after we scored,” Calitri said. “If that momentum reverses, it’s not good for us.”
Thomson agreed, creating an early story that set the tone for his Fall Classic show: Worry about today and let tomorrow take care of itself.
“In this seven-game series where you’re 2-3-2, you’ve got that off day, two off days, and maybe you can use guys a little more,” Thomson said the day after Game 1. “If the season let’s start the next one, I can tell you it’s a marathon. It’s a sprint and we have to go at it every day.”
As it turns out, the strategy was rewarded again when rain delayed Game 3, giving Thomson’s bullpen the next day off.
Of course, not every risky move will happen. In Game 4, Thomson pulled Nola with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning, again for Jose Alvarado. This time, however, Alvarado struck out the first batter to blow the lead and the Astros scored five runs in the inning, eventually tying the series at 2-2.
But win or lose, Thomson is the one with a calming presence in the locker room — as he was after the Game 4 loss that saw the Phillies in just their second World Series appearance.
“I was walking in the clubhouse … and I just told them to wash it off,” Thomson said. “Said.”
Then he left, leaving room for his veteran club to seize the moment, almost as they have done since June. This laid-back style is part of who he is – steady, calm and poised.
And so far, his success in the job has proven that the wait was worth it — for him and the team he manages.
“We’re all grateful for the opportunity to play for him,” Bryce Harper said. “We all want to go out there and play our best game for him, and he has only the confidence in the world in our ability to go out there.”