Bryce Harper is a favorite to win the National League MVP. Zack Wheeler still has a chance to win his first Cy Young Award. Ranger Suárez doesn’t fall into the superstar category, but the Phillies wouldn’t be in contention without him.
On Saturday, Suárez threw a nine-inning complete-game shutout to clinch a series victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was his longest outing since 2014 when he threw eight innings in his last start in the Venezuelan Summer League.
He became the first Phillies pitcher to throw a “Maddux” — a nine-inning complete-game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches thrown — since Kyle Kendrick shutout the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on May 26, 2012.
“Just in command the whole game,” manager Joe Girardi said after the game on Suárez’s performance. “Fed off their aggressiveness a little bit, threw quality strikes right from the beginning. I don’t think he had an inning where he threw maybe more than 15 pitches. He had a bunch of innings in the single digits, threw his fastball on both sides of the plate, he elevated extremely well — there’s not much that wasn’t impressive.”
The outing was timely. Héctor Neris (rest), Ian Kennedy (rest) and Sam Coonrod (thumb) were unavailable out of the bullpen. Archie Bradley was placed on the 10-day injured list with a strained right oblique. He’ll miss the remainder of the regular season. Connor Brogdon could return Tuesday in Atlanta, per Matt Gelb of The Athletic.
“I always try to go deep in games,” Suárez said through Phillies Spanish language interpreter Diego Ettedgui. “I always try to do my best to save them pitches or outs that I can try to make instead of the bullpen. Special today? Yeah, I was aware of the situation in the bullpen. I wanted to help out. I wanted to give them some extra room to breath and take a day.”
The 26-year-old began the year at the Phillies’ alternate training site as an afterthought. He tested positive for COVID-19 before the 2020 season and was a non-factor in the 60-game season. Visa issues delayed his arrival to the states for spring training this year. The Phillies didn’t expect much from Suárez.
What they’ve gotten is much more than what they could’ve dreamed of. He was called upon to piggyback Spencer Howard out of the bullpen and he thrived to the point where the Phillies believed he was too good for a niche role. With Héctor Neris and José Alvarado struggling in the closer’s role, Suárez was moved to the ninth inning. He had a 1.59 ERA in the month of July as the Phillies closer.
Following the acquisition of Ian Kennedy, the Phillies were ready to move Suárez to the rotation. He’s arguably been the team’s best starter since making the move. The lefty has a 2.25 ERA after transitioning to his new role.
Saturday was Suárez’s finest outing by far. He threw single-digit pitches in three innings and induced three double-play balls. A big reason why he’s transitioned so well to the rotation is because he has a third pitch to rely on.
He threw 16 sliders Saturday and while he didn’t get any swing-and-misses on the pitch, Suárez used it to set up his changeup and sinker. He threw it only three times the first time through the order and mostly relied on it against righties.
“When they told me that I was going to start games, I focused on developing that pitch and working on that pitch,” Suárez said. “Today, it helped me a lot.
Matt Vierling, who hit his first big-league home run in Saturday’s game, got an extended look at Suárez at the alternate training site, calling the 26-year-old the nastiest pitcher he’s faced in the Phillies system.
“He throws hard enough and everything just comes out the same spot and everything looks the same,” Vierling said. “And he’s so smooth with the way he throws that he’ll kind of lull you to sleep a little bit and then it gets on you. He’s really good and he’s throwing the ball really well right now, which is really helping us.”
Suárez’s next scheduled start is the series-opener in Miami on Friday, but Girardi could move him up a day and have him face the Braves in the series finale on Thursday. Moving Suárez’s start from Friday to Thursday also gives him a chance to start in a possible tiebreaker game against the Braves in Philadelphia if the two teams end the season tied for first place in the NL East.
He’s earned the opportunity to pitch in the biggest game of the season. Girardi says he’s going to play it day-by-day. In the past, Girardi has praised Suárez for his slow heartbeat it big spots. Kyle Gibson is scheduled to pitch Thursday in Atlanta.
Suárez’s 2021 ERA sits at 1.45, which is the second-lowest in the league behind Jacob deGrom (min. 90 innings pitched). He’s looking to become the first Phillies pitcher to throw at least 90 innings and finish with an ERA under 2 since Tug McGraw, who had a 1.46 ERA in 1980.
Suárez praised teammates such as Neris, Bradley, Gibson, J.T. Realmuto and José Alvarado for helping him put together the season he’s having.
“I didn’t really think about having a season like this one, obviously,” Suárez said. “I try to be an overachiever. I want to exceed expectations.”
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