Archie Bradley’s fastball was sluggish in April and even slower in May after he spent four weeks on the injured list. The Phillies signed him to a one-year, $6 million contract in January to solidify the late innings, but the reliever’s rough start had him questioning his future.
“You have some doubts creeping into your head, like ‘Man, is this all I have in the tank now?’” Bradley said. “When you perform like that and you’re not throwing as hard or as good as you should be, you have some doubts about your future and the type of player you are.”
That’s when Bradley, 29, remembered something Paul Goldschmidt, his old teammate with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said when he was going through a slump.
“Someone told him ‘Paul, be great today.’ He kind of joked and said, ‘No, I just want to be average today,’” Bradley said. “That was kind of my mentality when I was working through the things I was working through. ‘If I can be average today, I’m better than I was yesterday.’ Like I can’t go from being bad to being great. You have to take your little baby steps. It was that.”
So Bradley said he started “finding joy in little successes.” Instead of stressing over strikeouts, he enjoyed the weak contact he was inducing.
And he dug into ways to get better. He tossed a scoreless inning in Cincinnati on June 1 but wasn’t satisfied. His fastball sat at just 92 mph, so he met with the pitching coaches and charted a plan to build his velocity.
Over his next 33 games, Bradley’s fastball averaged 94.61 mph after averaging 92.48 in his first 10 appearances. They fine-tuned Bradley’s mechanics and implemented drills meant to increase velocity. The atmosphere of a playoff race helped, too.
“Every game for us now is a must-win game. Now more than ever my adrenaline and blood is pumping,” Bradley said. “For me, if I lose a game now, that could be a game that causes us to miss the playoffs.”
Bradley has a 2.75 ERA since the start of June and he has erased those early doubts to be the late-inning stabilizer the Phillies thought he was when they signed him in the offseason. He has been far better than average, giving manager Joe Girardi a trusted arm for the seventh or eighth inning.
“To see the ball come out the way it has the last couple weeks and to see my overall confidence, my overall presence out there get back to the way I feel I am and the player I am and the player I want to be, it’s really assuring,” Bradley said. “And it makes me excited for the rest of this year and for going forward for myself.”
Girardi had used Bradley at times in the middle innings when the pitcher was trying to just find “joy in little successes.” He said he took those moments and “let them grow until I had real confidence, real success, real command, and real feel for what I’m doing.”
That seemed to come in July when Girardi pushed Bradley into a high-leverage role. He pitched Bradley almost exclusively in July and August in the seventh, eighth, or ninth. The Phillies entered September with a late-inning hierarchy of Héctor Neris, Bradley, and Ian Kennedy. They aren’t perfect, but it’s a solid unit.
Girardi prefers giving his relievers set roles, and he’s been able to do that thanks to the success of those three pitchers. As they try to chase down a postseason berth, the Phillies believe they have three late-inning options to lean on in September. And that wouldn’t be possible if Bradley gave in to those doubts that were beginning to creep in.
“Héctor Neris is the reason we’re able to do this,” Bradley said. “Héctor is a pro. No one feels bad for you and Héctor got removed from the closer’s role. He got hit around a little bit afterwards, but same thing as me, he put his head down and worked hard.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we’ve been doing if Héctor didn’t fill that 5-6-7 role the way he has and get the ball to me, which allows me to get the ball to Kennedy. As a team, starters start to get up in pitches and they know we’re going Héctor, me, Ian. It creates a confidence and flow and rhythm that if we get to these guys, we can close this game out.”