Fueled by faith, Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez enjoys a blessed season

Fueled by faith, Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez enjoys a blessed season

The Phillies registered their first series sweep of the second half with three wins over the weekend against the Colorado Rockies.
Jeanmar Gomez notched saves in two of the games, continuing his outstanding season as the team’s accidental closer.
They weren’t the kind of saves Ken Giles was firing up there a year ago, saves seemingly bathed in gasoline and dripping with swings-and-misses and strikeouts.
They were typical Jeanmar Gomez saves. The right-hander bobbed and weaved like a boxer on the ropes and relied on poise, smarts and finesse to close out the two games. Yeah, he came away a little bloodied — especially Sunday when he allowed two runs in a three-run game — but for closers the most important statistic is one that doesn’t appear in the box score: handshakes. Gomez has walked off the mound to handshakes 31 times this season.
Phillies manager Pete Mackanin reflected on Gomez's season after the pitcher registered his 30th save Saturday night.
“It’s very impressive in the respect that he was the last choice to be our closer,” Mackanin said. “We gave everybody an opportunity. He stayed with it and did a good job. He stays poised on the mound. He’s such a great guy and he’s been extremely valuable for us.
“Thirty saves. His son was born. It’s been a good year for him.”
On Sunday morning, Gomez sat in front of his locker in the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.
The 28-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, had just emerged from a pregame workout. He wiped sweat from his brow and smiled.
Yes, it has been a good year.
Gomez and his wife Luisa became new parents on Aug. 4 when son Matthew was born at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.
Usually reporters ask the questions, but Sunday morning Gomez had a question for a reporter.
“Do you know what it means?” he said of his son’s first name.
“Matthew,” he continued. “It means gift of God.”
The blessing of a son has made what Gomez described as the best year of his career even better. He never expected to be the Phillies' closer this year. He reported to spring training in February believing he’d pitch in a setup role with someone else collecting the saves. But after others got a look in camp and David Hernandez and Dalier Hinojosa struggled way back in that season-opening series in Cincinnati in April, Gomez was next in line. He got the job done. Handshakes followed. He’s been on the job ever since.
In a year of blessings, Gomez sees his rise to the role of Phillies closer as another one.
“It’s a gift,” he said. “I never thought of closing. I was a starter until two years ago. I like it because you have to stay focused all the time because you can’t make a mistake. I don’t throw 99 (mph) so focus and control are everything.”
Despite a strikeout rate under 17 percent (the major-league average is 21 percent) and a swinging-strike percentage of just 6.8 percent (the major-league average is 10 percent), Gomez has blown just three saves. Oh, he can still get a strikeout when needed. Witness his work against National League home run leader Nolan Arenado in the ninth inning Saturday night. Gomez fanned the slugger with two men on base in a three-run game. But Gomez's strength remains his ability to locate his sinker, which has helped him produce a 53 percent ground ball rate.
“To me, he’s almost like a strikeout pitcher,” pitching coach Bob McClure said. “With a strikeout pitcher, you’re always thinking, ‘All right, he’ll get a strikeout here and be out of trouble.’ With Jeanmar, you’re thinking, ‘All right, he’ll get a ground ball, we’ll get a double play and be out of trouble.’ That’s how well he commands his sinker.”
Gomez gave up two runs in Sunday’s 7-6 win. But he might have given up none had second baseman Cesar Hernandez made a better feed to shortstop Freddy Galvis with one out in the ninth. Gomez got his ground ball. A better feed might have equaled a game-ending double play and no runs scored.
Gomez has another weapon as closer: his composure. The ninth inning can fray the nerves of even the most seasoned baseball man. Sometimes you wonder if Gomez even has a pulse.
“He’s very calm,” McClure said. “That helps.”
That calm, Gomez said, comes from his faith. He says a prayer before he steps on the mound.
“I ask God to take control,” he said. “That enables me to stay calm.”
Many closers have big, excitable, fiery personalities — we’ve seen them in Philadelphia with Mitch Williams, Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon — but Gomez is one of the quietest and most unassuming guys in the Phillies' clubhouse. If humility were a fastball, he’d hit triple digits on the radar gun.
Again, that goes back to his faith. He reads the Bible daily and from it draws the inspiration to be strong and courageous, just as it says in one of his favorite passages, Joshua 1:9.
“When you have Jesus in your heart you have to be humble,” he said. “When he came to Earth he wanted simplicity for us. That enables you to serve others.”
Gomez has served the Phillies so well this season that he has put himself in line for a nice payday this winter. He will be arbitration eligible for the second time. He is making $1.4 million this season. It’s reasonable to think that a 30-plus save season could be worth $4 million in 2017, but Gomez is not focused on riches.
“We depend on God, not the money,” he said.
Gomez was available for a trade in July, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest. His pitch-to-contact, bob-and-weave style of closing still doesn’t appeal to a lot of teams who view him as more of a setup man. He could once again be available for a trade this winter with the Phillies looking to Hector Neris or Edubray Ramos as closer next season. But Gomez could also be back in his same role with the Phillies next season.
The humble pitcher is open to anything. He is here to serve.
“If I continue to get the opportunity to close, I’d like it,” he said. “But I’ve earned nothing. I’m happy with whatever opportunity I get.”
If Gomez's ascension to closer has been a surprise, then it’s consistent with his whole career. He did not intend on playing professional baseball. Education is very important to him and his family. His mother, Marbella, is a school administrator in Caracas and his wife is a law school graduate. After graduating from high school, Gomez planned to study Biology at the Central University of Venezuela and later attend medical school. In 2005, the Cleveland Indians offered him a minor-league contract and he decided to give it a try. After years of change, from teams to pitching roles, he ranks seventh in the majors in saves this season.
Even Gomez's post-baseball career plans have changed. He no longer aspires to attend medical school.
“I would like to try to be a pastor and teach everybody about God,” he said.

Phillies’ focus turns to Aaron Nola, Scott Kingery, bench competition

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Phillies’ focus turns to Aaron Nola, Scott Kingery, bench competition


FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Phillies began their final full week in Florida on Sunday with a game against the Minnesota Twins. It provided manager Gabe Kapler the opportunity to look at a number of important areas — some settled, some unsettled — of his roster.

To wit:

• The opening day battery of Aaron Nola and Jorge Alfaro worked together. Nola battled through an early rough patch and delivered five innings of two-run ball. He will have one more start before he gets the call in Atlanta in 11 days.

• Scott Kingery, everybody’s favorite prospect, got the start at third base. He had two hits, raising his average to .378 (14 for 37), and made a nice play on a bunt. Kingery is projected to open at Triple A so the Phillies can control his rights through 2024. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be down there long. He projects as the second baseman of the future, but Cesar Hernandez is at the position for now. Third base could be a temporary landing spot for Kingery if Maikel Franco struggles. Kingery played some third at Triple A last season. Yes, Kapler wants to create versatility on his roster. But it was still notable that Kingery got his first look of the spring at third. He will get more time in the outfield before camp ends.

“We want him ready to step in and play all over the diamond whenever that time is,” Kapler said.

• The battle for bench spots was in full display. It’s not clear if the Phils have two or three spots open on the bench because they don’t need a fifth starting pitcher until April 11 and that could allow them a five-man bench at the outset. Regardless, the competition will come into focus this week.  Candidates Ryan Flaherty, Adam Rosales, Pedro Florimon, Jesmuel Valentin and Roman Quinn all played in the game.

Quinn, Florimon and Valentin are all on the 40-man roster so that could help their chances. Quinn, an outfielder by trade, got another look at shortstop. Florimon played left field, had a hit and walked twice. Valentin, an infielder by trade, got a look in right field and belted his third homer of the spring, a three-run shot, for the Phillies’ only runs in a 4-3 loss.

“Valentin has really put his strongest foot forward,” Kapler said. “He’s demonstrated pop, versatility and come up with huge hits.”

Flaherty, who played seven different positions with the Orioles over the last six seasons, started at first base and had a hit. He’s hitting .333.

“He’s having an awesome spring,” Kapler said.

Like Flaherty, Rosales, who has played parts of the last 10 seasons in the majors, can also play anywhere. Flaherty has an out in his minor-league contract on Thursday, so that could bring some clarity to his situation. If he’s still in the hunt Saturday, the Phillies must add him to the 40-man roster, pay him a $100,000 retention bonus or allow him to walk. Ditto for Rosales. So the bench picture will start to come into focus soon.

“There’s a lot to be excited about in that bench role,” Kapler said.

Charlie Manuel keeps his promise to Roy Halladay's son

Jim Salisbury/NBCSP

Charlie Manuel keeps his promise to Roy Halladay's son

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It’s not hard to find Charlie Manuel in spring training. In late mornings, he’s perched behind the batting cage watching Phillies hitters take their swings. During the game, he’s on the top step of the dugout, taking it all in and offering advice where needed.

Manuel didn’t stay for the game Saturday. He watched batting practice, showered and drove out of the parking lot 30 minutes before the first pitch.

Manuel, you see, had a promise to keep.

Back in November, Manuel was one of nine people to speak at Roy Halladay’s memorial service at Spectrum Field, the Phillies’ spring training home. Manuel stood at a podium near the very mound that Halladay trained on and spoke from the heart about what an honor it was to manage such a great talent and competitor. Manuel had jotted his words down on a paper, but he didn’t stick completely to his script that day. At one point, he looked down at Halladay’s two grieving sons, Braden and Ryan, and told them he’d be keeping tabs on their progress as young ballplayers. Manuel promised to attend their games. And that’s just what he did Saturday afternoon.

Braden Halladay, a lanky 17-year-old right-hander who bears a striking resemblance to his dad, on and off the mound, is a member of the Canadian Junior Team’s spring training roster. He was born in Toronto when his dad played for the Blue Jays, hence his eligibility to pitch for Canada.

On Saturday, Braden pitched a scoreless eighth inning against a Jays’ split-squad team on the very Dunedin Stadium mound where his dad began his career.

“I’m so glad I came over,” Manuel said after Braden’s perfect inning of work. “He did good. I’m glad he got ‘em out.”

This wasn’t the first time Manuel had seen Braden pitch. Braden pitches for Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, where he is a junior. Manuel watched him pitch five shutout innings earlier in the week. And on Wednesday night, Manuel attended young brother Ryan’s practice in Clearwater.

Manuel has a warm spot for the boys for a lot of reasons. Obviously, there was the respect he had for their dad. “When I think of Roy, I think of the perfect game and playoff no-hitter first,” Manuel said. “Right after that, I think of his work ethic. It was the best I’ve ever seen.” 

But Manuel’s affection for the boys goes beyond the respect he had for their dad. Manuel was 18, the oldest son in a family of 11 children, when he lost his dad.

“I feel for those boys,” Manuel said. “I know what they’re going through and it isn’t easy. Not easy at all.”

It takes a lot of love to get through a tragedy like the one the Halladay family has gone through. The boys get it from their mom, Brandy, who is at all of their games. And they get it from people like Charlie Manuel.

Saturday’s first pitch at Dunedin Stadium, just a few miles from the Phillies’ ballpark, was scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Manuel wanted to hustle over so he could wish Braden luck before the game. Manuel made his way down to the bullpen area and spotted one of his former Phillies players, Pete Orr, who is a coach with the Canadian team. Orr called over to Braden. A huge smile crossed the kid’s face when he saw Manuel. He sprinted over and gave Manuel a hug. Orr, who grew up near Toronto, slapped Braden on the back of his Team Canada jersey and said, “He looks good in red and white.”

He sure did.

Braden chatted with Manuel for a minute or two, and Manuel wished him luck. A reporter from Philadelphia asked Braden what it felt like to have Manuel keep tabs on his baseball career.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Braden said with a big smile. “It means a lot to me.”

The reporter wished him luck and told him that all of Philadelphia was rooting for him.

“I appreciate that,” the young pitcher said before trotting off to join his teammates.

Braden Halladay is 6-3 and 150 pounds. He entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning with his team down, 11-3, at first to a smattering of applause. That grew into a big, beautiful round of applause after the PA man announced his name and everyone in the crowd realized the magnitude of the moment. Braden knelt behind the mound and wrote his dad’s initials in the dirt before delivering his first pitch. His pitching delivery is smooth and fundamentally pure.

“You can tell Roy worked with him,” Manuel said.

Braden mixed his pitches nicely in getting two pop-ups and a ground ball. He hit 83 mph on the stadium radar gun. A few months ago, Braden announced that he had committed to Penn State. Manuel sees a lot of promise in the kid.

“When he’s 21, he’ll pitch at 205 pounds,” Manuel said. “He’ll get stronger. You watch, he’s got a chance to be real good. He has a good, quick arm, command of the ball and mechanics.”

Where the game will eventually take Braden Halladay is a story for another day. Back in November, he sat in the middle of a baseball field and listened to people eulogize his dad. It was an excruciatingly difficult experience and the look on his face that day said as much.

So on Saturday, it was just great to see Braden Halladay back on a baseball field with a smile on his face. And it was great to see Charlie Manuel there, taking it all in, just as he had promised.