Evan Phillips opened 2023 as the de facto closer in a relatively young and untested bullpen, a reliever who could be deployed more as a fireman to douse hot spots in the highest-leverage situations, regardless of the inning.
But three months into the season, the Dodgers removed the “de facto” label from Phillips’ title with virtually no fanfare, which was perfectly fine with the unassuming 29-year-old right-hander who assumed the important ninth-inning role that was most recently held by 400-save-club members Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen.
“I think letting things kind of [sort out] organically was most beneficial for our group, because it kept my role loose, and I was able to do different things here and there to make sure we had the best opportunity to win a ballgame,” Phillips said.
“But things have definitely ironed themselves out quite a bit, in large part due to [setup man] Ryan Brasier’s ability to pitch the way he has and take down big parts of the order in big moments, along with some of our other mainstays who have done it throughout the year. That’s allowed me to kind of settle into this role.”
Phillips appreciates the team’s low-key handling of his situation because it meshes with his blue-collar approach to the job — he focuses on making pitches and getting outs and doesn’t attach too much significance or value to specific roles.
But it will be impossible for Phillips to fly under the radar come October, when the erstwhile journeyman will enter the playoffs as the closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a title that comes with the kind of pressure and expectations that Phillips has never faced in his six-year big-league career.
“You can’t replicate postseason pressure, you can’t replicate that kind of environment, so I think I’ll do the best I can to stay level-headed and focused on what I can do to grow,” Phillips said.
“What I can do to best prepare myself for the postseason is just continue to fine-tune my repertoire, go out there and try to get the best results each and every day, and I think that will naturally carry itself into the postseason.”
The next time he enters a playoff game for the Dodgers, who are on the verge of clinching their 10th NL West title in 11 years as they begin a three-game series in Seattle on Friday night, it will likely be to nail down the final three outs of a win or keep the score tied in the top of the ninth.
“Pitching the ninth inning is definitely a different gear that you learn to get into,” Phillips said. “Finishing the game, getting the final three outs, carries a little different weight than it does in the middle of the game.”
To prepare himself mentally for that pressure, Phillips has sought counsel from injured teammate Daniel Hudson, the veteran right-hander who closed for the World Series-winning Washington Nationals in 2019 and pitched the final inning of a 6-2 win over the Houston Astros in the Game 7 of the World Series in Minute Maid Park.
“I think the biggest thing in those situations is that the adrenaline is gonna be there, so don't try to overdo it,” said Hudson, who has been out since early July because of a right-knee sprain. “It's a different animal, but you're already nasty, you're already really good, so don't feel like you have to do anything more than you already do.”
Phillips also sought out Jansen, now the Boston Red Sox’s closer, when the Dodgers were in Fenway Park in August. Jansen closed for the Dodgers from 2012-2021 and was part of nine playoff teams, appearing in 57 postseason games — 11 of them in the World Series — his many successes offset by some notorious turbulence.
“He said Dodgers fans love their team, but they’re eager to win, so being in this role means a little more,” Phillips said. “He didn’t really outright say it, but I think he subtly sent a message saying to hold on tight, because it’s an important job. And definitely don’t take it for granted.”
Phillips, who had a 7.50 career ERA for three teams and was released by the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays before the Dodgers claimed him off waivers in August 2021, has had three months to wrap his head around the challenges and responsibilities of his new job, and he has shown he has the stuff and temperament to handle it.
Mixing his big-breaking 85.4-mph sweeper with a 93.1-mph cut-fastball, 96.4-mph four-seamer and 95.5-mph sinker, Phillips enters Friday with a 1-4 record and 2.47 ERA in 55 games in which he has struck out 60, walked 11 and allowed only 32 hits in 54⅔ innings.
He has converted 22 of 24 save opportunities and held hitters to a .169 average and .523 on-base-plus-slugging percentages, superb numbers but not quite as good as Phillips’ breakout 2022 season, when he went 7-3 with a 1.14 ERA in 64 games, struck out 77, walked 15 and held hitters to a .155 average and .430 OPS in 63 innings.
“I’m very confident,” Roberts said of Phillips’ ability to handle playoff pressure as a closer. “October is a crapshoot. There are players who have had experience and don't perform well, and there's players every year that don't have experience — Jeremy Peña [Houston shortstop and 2022 World Series MVP] for one, Daniel Hudson — who go out there and perform. So I think for me, it's just betting on the person, on the compete, on the preparation, and betting that the moment's not gonna get too big for him.”
Phillips has hit a few rough patches. He suffered a blown save and a loss when he was tagged for three runs in the ninth inning of a 9-7 loss to Pittsburgh on July 4 and gave up two homers — a three-run shot to Juan Soto and a solo shot to Xander Bogaerts — in the ninth inning of Monday night’s 11-8 loss to the San Diego Padres.
He did not pitch in Tuesday night’s 11-2 win over the Padres or Wednesday night’s 6-1 loss, in which the Dodgers mustered only one hit, a bloop single, in six innings against NL Cy Young Award favorite Blake Snell.
Phillips is still learning how to control his adrenaline in high-stress moments and the nuances of pitching in situations where there is little to no margin for error.
“When the goal is to win the game, you probably operate just a touch differently than you would in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, right?” Phillips said. “It’s understanding that if it’s a situation where you can pitch around a guy, if there’s an open base and the guy on deck is a better matchup, things like that. Those are some of the fine-tuned details that I’m learning in the moment on the mound.”
Hudson learned most of this on the fly in 2019, when he was acquired by the Nationals from Toronto in a trade-deadline deal and emerged as the team’s closer in September.
Hudson had only 17 regular-season saves in 10 big-league seasons when he was thrust into the ninth inning of the NL wild-card game against Milwaukee, entering after the Nationals rallied for three runs in the bottom of the eighth to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
His adrenaline-fueled fastball touching 98 mph and a frenzied Nationals Park crowd hanging on his every pitch, Hudson recorded his first playoff save, the start of a superb postseason in which he had a 3.72 ERA and four saves in nine games and struck out Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley for the final two outs of the World Series.
“I think that first game helped me because I was like, ‘You know, I can do this,’ and my confidence built from there,” Hudson said. “It’s difficult, because the situations are big, and every out is the most important out of the game to that point.
“But I think when Evan gets that first [playoff] save, assuming it goes well, which it normally does for him, he’ll get that same confidence. The only thing that can really help in those situations is experience and reps.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.