How Evan Phillips Became a Star Closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers

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Reliable relief pitchers can emerge from unexpected places, as demonstrated by two players who achieved the milestone of 400 career saves last month. Craig Kimbrel, a dominant closer, was selected early in the draft from Alabama and showcased his talent from the beginning of his professional career. On the other hand, Kenley Jansen, hailing from Curaçao, had a different path, initially starting as a minor league catcher before transitioning to pitching.

Between these two former Los Angeles Dodgers relievers lies the team’s current bullpen standout: Evan Phillips. Phillips has always felt at home on the pitcher’s mound, considering it his most comfortable and natural position in the world. However, his journey has been marked by setbacks. He was released by the Baltimore Orioles, who were then the worst team in baseball, less than two years ago. To compound matters, he was subsequently dropped again, just two weeks later, by the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I feel like I’ve been through the worst in this game,” Phillips said last week, before a game with the Phillies, “so when I’m out there and it looks like it’s a hot situation for a relief pitcher, I feel as cool as can be.”

The right-handed Phillips has quietly been perhaps the majors’ best reliever across the last two seasons. From the start of 2022 through Tuesday, he had the lowest E.R.A. in the sport, at 1.54 (minimum 65 appearances), and the lowest WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in the sport, at 0.787 (minimum 65 appearances). Opponents had a meager .244 slugging percentage against him.

His effectiveness has been critical for the Dodgers, who were 38-29 after Tuesday’s win despite unsettling struggles on the mound. After leading the National League in E.R.A. in each of the last six seasons, their 4.44 mark ranked 19th in the majors through Tuesday. If Manager Dave Roberts could clone Phillips, he would.

“He commands a strike zone, he has different weapons to get guys out, and he is completely neutral,” Roberts said, referring to Phillips’s strength against both left- and right-handers. “I don’t need information to know that he’s always the best option. And so now with that, it’s: When do you deploy that silver bullet that you have?”

In Philadelphia, Roberts could not find that moment. He had used Phillips extensively earlier in the week and wanted him only for a one-inning save situation on Friday. That never developed, and the next two games were fairly lopsided.

Phillips, then, was left with a full weekend to absorb his last outing, in Cincinnati last Wednesday, when he gave up a homer to the Reds’ Will Benson to end the game. It was the first walk-off homer he had ever allowed, but he had already shaken the feeling.

“I was talking to some of our pitching guys after the game about how it feels,” Phillips said. “That won’t be the last time it happens. It’s bound to happen again, and I have to be able to turn the page quickly because the team’s going to rely on me in situations like that for a while.”

Phillips, 28, has turned from the quintessential four-A guy — trapped in a netherworld between Class AAA and the majors — to an actual guy, baseballese for a solid big leaguer. It has been a winding pro journey that began in 2015, when Atlanta drafted him in the 17th round from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

A lively fastball helped Phillips reach the majors in 2018 with the Braves, who traded him to the Orioles that summer. A Baltimore coach, Chris Holt, taught Phillips a sweeping slider, which required him to lower his arm angle. The sweeper quickly became Phillips’s best pitch, but the new angle took some of the hop from his fastball. He could not stick in parts of three seasons with Baltimore.

Back in the minors in 2021, when the Orioles were a major-league-worst 52-110, Phillips’s goals were limited: He hoped to be a bulk guy (an emergency long reliever, essentially) in Baltimore. Summoned to the manager’s office at Class AAA Norfolk one day that August, Phillips envisioned one of two outcomes.

“I had a 50/50 feeling of either I’m getting released or I’m getting called up,” he said. “And that’s such an odd thought process, when you think about it, but that was kind of the position the team was in — we need pitchers to cover games, but we also want to push our prospects up and put them in positions to build for the future.”

The Orioles gave Phillips’s roster spot to a fast-rising closer, Félix Bautista, who is now a star in Baltimore, and Phillips landed with the Tampa Bay Rays, the eventual division champion. The Rays happened to need a fresh arm, and Phillips debuted with three solid innings in a blowout win, earning his first career save.

That is the problem with long relievers, though: If they do their job, they need a couple of days to rest. When viewed as fungible and out of minor league options, as Phillips was, they are in immediate danger of being designated for assignment.

So it was with Phillips, who moved on to another team that simply needed a big-league-ish arm to help get through a game.

“We were coming up on a day when we needed length out of the pen,” Dodgers General Manager Brandon Gomes said. “We said, ‘We think this guy’s talented — let’s take a shot on him and see how he does.’ And all the makeup stuff we had done on him was outstanding.”

Phillips worked in nine games that season for the Dodgers, including a victory in the N.L. Championship Series. The team encouraged him to emphasize the sweeping slider, a pitch that startled some opponents.

“I remember that year, a text from Curt Casali with the Giants,” Gomes said. “Like: ‘What is this? That’s like the best slider I’ve ever seen.’ So he had always had that — that was his superpower — and it speaks to his aptitude and openness to work with our pitching group to add the cutter and bring back the two-seamer as he’s gone along.”

While many relievers use only two pitches, by last season Phillips had four he could trust: the sweeping slider, the cutter, the four-seam fastball and the sinking two-seam fastball. The result was a 1.14 E.R.A. and the hard-earned belief that he was more than an easily replaceable roster filler.

“Because why would I ever believe that I should be pitching leverage innings for the Dodgers?” Phillips said. “Coming from where I came from, that never felt like something I could say. So it took me a long time to really believe that that’s where I belonged.

“Fortunately, I never carry those feelings to the field or anything. Every time I go out there and compete, it’s about as simple as it can be. It’s never been about, ‘Am I the right fit for this at bat?’ or ‘Why am I here?’ Throwing the baseball is the most comfortable thing I do in my life. I’ve been doing it longer than anything I’ve ever done. It’s like taking a step forward, it’s that simple for me. It’s something I love to do, and I chase that work every single day.”

Every single day? That is not possible, of course. But the Dodgers — especially this year — would love to let him do it.

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