The Phillies’ decision to move Ranger Suarez from the bullpen to the starting rotation was carefully contemplated. The pitcher’s health and mindset were considered. So were the present and the future, both from an individual and team perspective.
The team has always viewed Suarez as a starter in waiting. He was developed as such in the minors, making 81 starts as a minor-leaguer climbing the ladder.
After three months of solid to outstanding contribution in the bullpen, Suarez transitioned back to his roots on Monday night. He pitched three scoreless innings, covering that prescribed duration in just 33 pitches, in the Phillies’ come-from-behind, 7-5 win over the Washington Nationals.
The victory left the Phillies at 53-53 and 2½ games behind the New York Mets in the weak but winnable National League East. Zack Wheeler pitches against Patrick Corbin in the second game of the four-game series Tuesday night in Washington.
Suarez was so efficient Monday night that manager Joe Girardi considered sending the 25-year-old lefty back out for a fourth inning. Ultimately, Girardi decided to stick with the plan — “Better to be safe than sorry,” he said — and get Suarez out of there.
Next time out, Saturday against the Mets at home, Suarez will be in position to push his arm and body to 60 or 65 pitches. The Phillies will keep a close eye on him for at least another start and after that and, if all goes well, they’ll have a starting pitcher for the stretch drive — and beyond. Suarez is expected to be part of the team’s rotation next season.
“Ultimately, this is what I wanted,” Suarez said after Monday night’s game. “I see myself as a starting pitcher."
Two recent bullpen developments factored significantly into the Phillies’ decision to move Suarez to the rotation.
One was the acquisition of Ian Kennedy on Friday. He gave the Phillies a closer with whom to replace Suarez.
The other factor was the emergence of Archie Bradley over the last month. He was the Phils’ signature bullpen addition over the winter, a $6 million free-agent signing.
Bradley was slow to get going both in spring training and early in the season. His fastball lacked zip and he ended up on the injured list in mid-April after an oblique strain.
It took Bradley some time, but his fastball has improved — he was up to 97 mph on Monday night. He has been charged with just one run in his last 13 outings.
"I feel like I'm finally hitting my groove," said Bradley, citing improved health and mechanics.
With Bradley pitching to his track record, the Phillies have another late-game bullpen weapon. That eased the impact of moving Suarez from the role.
Bradley is elated to be making the contribution that was expected of him. He’s eager for Girardi to ride him.
“I’ll be the first to tell you, I didn’t have the start to the season I wanted,” Bradley said. “For who the Phillies expected me to be when they signed me, I didn’t really perform that way until the last month or so.
“I’m here on a one-year deal, I’m here to help this team win. That’s why they brought me in, to help this bullpen. I mean this respectfully to some of these other guys, but I’m not a prospect here that they’re trying to protect. I’m a proven major-league arm. I’ve gone three (days) in a row. I’ve gone four out of five. I’m ready to take on that burden and that role of pitching as much as I can to help us go win this NL East.”
The Phillies will need starter Zach Eflin to come back healthy in the next couple of weeks if they are going to overtake the Mets and hold off Atlanta. They will need Wheeler, Aaron Nola and newcomer Kyle Gibson to pitch like they can. And, of course, they’ll need Suarez to have success in the role he’s always aspired to be in.
Pressure shouldn’t bother Suarez. Getting high-leverage outs at the end of games for the past couple of months was good training. And beyond that, Suarez simply doesn’t get flustered. He’s got a little Cliff Lee in him. Shrug. Whatever. Just give me the ball and let me pitch.
Suarez has a fan in Bradley.
"I’m so jealous of Ranger,” Bradley said. “He’s the coolest, calmest, most collected guy I think I’ve ever been around.
"You look at the season he’s had, long guy, setup man, closer, now he goes back into the rotation. That’s just a testament to Ranger the person, how he handles himself and who he is as a baseball player."