As Phillies manager Joe Girardi maneuvered his way through the middle and late innings with a beleaguered bullpen in a close game Thursday night, one thought weighed uncomfortably on his mind.
Girardi's counterpart, New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone, had decided this was the night to rest one of the most dangerous hitters on the planet. But just because Aaron Judge was out of the starting lineup didn't mean he and his lethal power bat wouldn't be a factor in the game.
Sure enough, with the Phillies desperately clinging to a one-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning and a man on third base, the hulking Judge grabbed his bat and strode toward the plate.
Girardi responded by replacing lefty reliever Jose Alvarez with right-handed closer Hector Neris.
Phillies fans beyond the centerfield gate and those watching on television held their breath.
Five pitches later, they could exhale as Neris got Judge to swing over a splitter for strike three. It was the biggest out of the young season — at least for an inning. Neris allowed a pair of two-out hits in the ninth before retiring Luke Voit on a ball to the warning track to complete a 5-4 victory over the Yankees.
The win gave the Phils a split of the four-game series with one of baseball's most powerful teams.
J.T. Realmuto and Phil Gosselin stood out with the bats and Zach Eflin pitched well in his season debut as the Phillies improved their record to 3-4.
But the star of the game was an unlikely unit, a bullpen that had been scorched for 17 earned runs in 16⅔ innings in the early part of the season.
The 'pen was handed a 5-2 lead in the fifth inning and got 15 outs to preserve a one-run victory. Nick Pivetta allowed a two-run homer in the seventh for the bullpen's only blemish. But Pivetta did get six of the 15 outs.
Neris got four huge outs, including the strikeout of Judge, who leads the majors with seven homers and 17 RBIs in his first 12 games.
Yes, Girardi thought about having Neris walk Judge and go after Gio Urshela. But he didn't think about it for too long.
"You know, Aaron Judge, as great a hitter as he is, if you make your pitches you have a chance," Girardi said. "I thought Hector and J.T. had a great plan and they executed it."
Realmuto, the Phillies catcher, sensed that Judge would be looking for a first-pitch splitter because Neris is known for that pitch and threw it 66 percent of the time to lead off an at-bat last season. So Realmuto called for two straight fastballs then three straight splitters and it got the job done.
"That's a dangerous at-bat for any pitcher because if you make a mistake he can hit it out of the ballpark anywhere," Girardi said. "Hector was fantastic.
"When you look at what our bullpen did tonight, they gave us five strong innings against arguably the best lineup in baseball. Just an outstanding job."
Girardi admitted that his heart may have skipped a beat when Voit launched his ball to center in the last at-bat of the game. Off the bat, it looked like it had a chance to be a three-run homer and more misery for the bullpen.
"You worry because you know how strong these guys are and how far they hit the ball," Girardi said. "But you feel a little bit better when you see your centerfielder nestle under it."
The bullpen needed a little confidence-builder after a rough start to the season. But there's not much time to savor the performance. The Braves arrive Friday night for a four-game series.
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