Six blown saves. 11 save opportunities. Five different closers. 4.57 ERA.
The signs are clear- the Phillies bullpen does not have the lock-down closer it needs to consistently win games.
Now 26 games in, Manager Pete Mackanin is left searching for answers in the ninth inning, anyone who can get the Phillies stability in the ninth inning.
Phillies bullpen arms have accumulated six blown saves in just 11 opportunities, putting them seventh in MLB and tied for first in the National league in that category. Currently, it’s still uncertain who will get the call in their next chance.
Coming into this season, the role was seemingly Jeanmar Gomez’s to lose as the incumbent. He lost it one week into the season to Joaquin Benoit who subsequently blew a save in his first appearance. Gomez currently holds an unsightly 7.94 ERA with opposition batters hitting .333 in only 11.1 innings.
Mackanin gave him the early chances despite the success of Neris and Benoit in spring. The former starter was rocky towards the end of last season and hoped to bring back the dominance he showed pre-all star game when Gomez converted 24 of 26 save chances with a sub-three ERA. Hopes were dashed on opening day when Gomez allowed two runs and one homer to squeak past the Reds with the save. At 29, he doesn’t fit the mold of a closer, and chances he returns to the role are slim to none. Gomez’s focus needs to be refining his pitches to effectively help the ball club.
When Mackanin pulled Gomez from the ninth inning slot, he called Benoit’s number to be the next man up. Benoit seemed the logical choice, considering he was previously a successful closer with San Diego three years ago whom the Phillies could trade at the deadline. Being 39 years old, Benoit is not the long term solution, but in the short run, he could provide a consistent back-of-the-bullpen arm while building trade value to the Phillies to further their rebuild by shipping him to a playoff-bound team. Outside of the ninth inning, he has thrived as one of the more reliable relief arms; Benoit holds a 2.63 ERA, .133 average against, and 0.95 WHIP. However, in closing opportunities, he has faltered, blowing two saves and keeping the Phils search for their “go-to” man revolving.
Though Mackanin has yet to make such a claim, the closer seems to be Neris for the boys in red pinstripes. Not only has the splitter ball pitcher had the last four chances, the official Phillies depth chart lists Neris as the closer. The 27 year old Dominican is the man people were hoping and thinking would be the closer, seemingly the next in line. He’s got the youth, pitch makeup, and poise to be the guy.
As the set-up guy, Neris had a respectable 2.19 ERA on three for three save chances entering Dodger Stadium. He left Los Angeles with an ERA ballooned up to 4.97 after taking the loss, blowing the save, allowing four runs, and giving up back-to-back-to-back home runs in the one fell swoop. If that game represents his composure during the high pressure that is the ninth inning, then Mackanin has a tough task on hand. Neris also didn’t rely on his strong splitter so much during that outing, a pitch he used 52% of the time last year to much success.
Whether it be Neris or not for the future is unknown with still months of baseball to be played. What is known is that the Phillies have a gaping hole at the back of the ‘pen that is keeping the team from finishing out games that should be theirs for the taking. Gomez, Benoit, and Neris have all had their chances, but with no longevity in the role, its yet to be seen who is capable of settling in. Perhaps Mackanin and company decide to see what the youth can do in Edubray Ramos (24) and Joely Rodriguez (25) who have both had opportunities when the others are unable to pitch or the game is in extra innings, albeit failing to complete the save in any of the three appearances.
Luckily for the Philly faithful, the club has options knowing it’ll not have playoff implications for a team unexpected to make it to the fall classic. Other guys in the bullpen have seen recent success and may be able to provide stability in a bullpen that has struggled for the past couple seasons.
Veteran sidearm righty Pat Neshek spent part of the spring with Team USA for the World Baseball Classic and has since pitched his best for the Phillies. Through 9.2 innings in 11 games, Neshek has yet to surrender a run. What was a low risk, high reward signing this offseason, he could be a trade chip; as the closer, the Phillies would reap the rewards of a contender in need of strengthening their relief core. Neshek has been a bright spot in the struggling bullpen, and using him in the closer’s role may be what Mackanin needs to alleviate pressure from young arms who are still getting themselves acclimated to “the show”.
Photo credit: Editosaurus (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons