Mark Leiter Jr. turns in historic relief outing in Phillies' 5th straight loss

Mark Leiter Jr. turns in historic relief outing in Phillies' 5th straight loss


DENVER — When he took over in the third inning, relieving Phillies starter Nick Pivetta, Mark Leiter Jr. had a simple task: Save the bullpen.

He did that Saturday night with a performance that was historic, spellbinding and nearly defied belief, a long-relief outing for the ages, really.

“He put on a clinic on how to pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies suffered their fifth straight loss on this road trip with an 8-5 loss to the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

“He threw all his pitches for strikes. Threw strikes with all his secondary pitches and he’s got quite a few of them. He made a lot of good hitters look bad tonight.”

Pivetta gave up five runs in the first and three more in the third when Pat Valaika hit a two-run homer to end Pivetta’s outing. On came Leiter, a 26-year-old rookie with good bloodlines, the son of a former major league pitcher. Leiter’s finger-in-the-dike mission was to go as long and as far as possible, so the bullpen would not be in tatters.

Leiter pitched 4⅓ scoreless innings. He allowed two singles, didn’t issue a walk and piled up nine strikeouts, eight of them swinging. Leiter threw 40 of 52 pitches for strikes. The Rockies swung and missed 13 of his pitches, most of those misses futile swings on splitters.

Leiter’s nine strikeouts are tied for the fifth-most by a reliever in Phillies history and the most since Lowell Palmer struck out 10 against San Francisco on May 3, 1970. Leiter became the sixth reliever in MLB history to record nine strikeouts without allowing a run or walk. The last was Bruce Ruffin, who began his career with the Phillies, on Sept. 14, 1993, when he was pitching for the Rockies against Houston.

Leiter was in his fifth season in the minors this year when the Phillies promoted him. He made his major league debut April 28. Leiter is now in his third stint with the Phillies, this one beginning last Sunday when they recalled him from Triple A Lehigh Valley two days after trading Jeremy Hellickson to Baltimore.

When he took over for Pivetta, Leiter’s big league experience consisted of 17 games, including three starts, with a 1-2 record and a 4.86 ERA with 19 walks and 29 strikeouts in 37 innings and 32 hits allowed.

There were some moments, like May 2 at Wrigley Field where Leiter became the first Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson in 2005 to throw at least three innings and allow one or no hits. But there were never moments like Saturday night at Coors Field against a potent Rockies lineup.

“Just try and throw strikes and get ahead and not let your pitch count get away from you,” Leiter said. “Just try to stick to the game plan and also executing pitches.”

A graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Leiter was drafted by the Phillies in the 22nd round in 2013. By then, obviously, he had shown profession promise, armed with six pitches and a knack for when and how to use them.

“I wasn’t a guy that threw 90-plus in high school,” Leiter said. “Didn’t really start throwing 90 (mph) until college. My sophomore year is when I started throwing a little harder. I learned how to pitch and each year kind of got a little better with one pitch and maybe adding a pitch and kind of using one more here and one there. Just kind of evolving to being 26 years old now. I played a long time in the minor leagues, just each year trying to get better. That’s really what it comes down to."

In the midst of another Phillies loss, Leiter was spectacular. He said it was disappointing to lose but everybody has a job and helping the team in whatever way possible is paramount.

“Can’t say enough about his performance,” Mackanin said. “He’s a rookie. He’s getting his feet wet. But he pitched like a 10-year veteran tonight. He put on a clinic for every pitcher in baseball. It was really a lot of fun to watch.” 

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 with a game against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. 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 on 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.