The ever-revolving door that is the Phillies’ closer role has settled on Ranger Suárez for the next — well, for now.
After five blown saves in Héctor Neris’ first 15 attempts caused Joe Girardi to pivot to José Alvarado for the ninth inning — only for Alvarado to blow his first attempt, nearly his second and fall apart before being pulled in his third — Girardi decided to make another change.
The early returns so far have been promising. Yes, Suárez blew a save against the Padres on Friday, but he inherited a mid-inning jam from a wild and ineffective Alvarado, and one hit did him in before escaping the ninth with the score tied. He bounced back the next inning to strand the automatic runner on second and set the Phillies up for a walk-off win, then fired a stress-free, perfect ninth inning on just 13 pitches the following day to preserve a two-run victory.
At that point, Girardi had yet to confirm that Suárez was his new closer, but perhaps the most damning evidence of the switch came Monday, when Alvarado found himself on the mound in the eighth inning of what was then a 10-2 ballgame in Chicago. It prompted a question in Girardi’s postgame press conference about the future of the Phillies’ closer situation, and the skipper confirmed that ninth-inning duties would primarily belong to Suárez moving forward.
Suárez has conceded just three earned runs on 14 hits in 31 2/3 innings this season. He throws strikes, with just 2.3 BB/9 on the year. Girardi — and teammates — have often raved that the 25-year-old’s heartbeat always seems to stay low in any situation.
There’s little doubt that he’s a natural fit to be the team’s closer. The only question: Can Girardi afford that?
The Phillies’ bullpen ERA this season is 4.91, the sixth-worst mark in baseball. The group has converted on 19 of its 41 save opportunities. Names such as Neris, Alvarado, Sam Coonrod and Brandon Kintzler, who the team counted on to be contributors entering the season, have been disappointing, inconsistent or both.
Then there’s Suárez, whose 0.85 ERA and 0.70 WHIP are easily the best of the bunch. In an ideal world, Girardi would be able to use Suárez as the closer day in and day out, no questions asked, just as he did for years with Mariano Rivera in New York. But in reality, he might be best off simply using Suárez as his go-to high-leverage man, whether or not that situation comes in the ninth.
That becomes even more apparent when considering Girardi’s other relief options from the left side. The aforementioned Alvarado has struggled with his control all year, walking 27 batters in 32 innings. Bailey Falter, the last southpaw in the Phillies’ bullpen, is the team’s go-to long man, and he could even find his way into the starting rotation sooner rather than later, should Matt Moore or Vince Velasquez struggle.
On many nights, that’ll leave Suárez as the Phillies’ only reliable lefty out of the bullpen. Should they box him into the ninth inning even if it means unfavorable matchups against a theoretical gauntlet of left-handed hitters earlier in the game? Probably not.
Suárez, like Falter, could also be deployed as a long man. He initially made his presence known as Spencer Howard’s piggyback partner. It worked so well that the Phillies decided that they shouldn’t limit him to a niche role.
The only problem is that there is an occasional night where the Phillies need a long man. On Wednesday, Falter was unavailable after throwing 38 pitches the previous game. Suárez could have gone two or three innings in relief of Wheeler, who struggled early but got better as the game moved along. Girardi and the Phillies are very concerned about Wheeler’s workload as the season progresses and they may have missed out on an opportunity to control their ace’s innings. Suárez has yet to give up an earned run in an outing in which he has thrown at least two innings this season.
Of course, the conversation surrounding the ninth inning this season has sounded similar regardless of the current experiment: “If not **insert current closer here**, then who?”
But the Phillies have other viable options who can fill in should they use Suárez earlier. If you throw out one disastrous and fluky outing against the Giants back in April, Connor Brogdon’s ERA is 2.78, and his heartbeat has seemed similarly low in big spots all season (Wednesday’s outing in Chicago notwithstanding). Archie Bradley has a not-great but not-horrendous 3.71 ERA since returning from the injured list May 18 and has taken down plenty of high-leverage innings, plus, Bradley has prior experience closing.
Some stability in the back end of the bullpen never hurts, and maybe it’s just what the Phillies need. But Suárez has arguably been the team’s most consistent, reliable and even-keeled reliever this season, and the bullpen isn’t exactly rife with automatic outs who can consistently get the ball to Suárez in the ninth inning with a lead still intact.
For that reason, the Phillies might have no other option than to employ Suárez in the game’s biggest moments — whether or not those come in the ninth inning — and figure out the rest from there.
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