BOSTON — Upon joining the Phillies last weekend, Jared Hughes felt a tap on the arm from fellow reliever Mike Morin, who volunteered to help his new teammate get oriented with the ways things are done.
"Morin basically took me under his wing," Hughes said Wednesday. "He was just like, 'Hey man, we're going here now. Here's when we stretch. Then we're going here.' And I just learned the schedule."
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Nice of Morin, wasn’t it? Really, though, it was the least he could do. After all, he went through that exact process only a month ago.
Of the eight relievers in the Phillies bullpen for the two-game interleague series at Fenway Park, three — Hughes, Morin, and Blake Parker — weren’t in the organization at the All-Star break. A fourth, rookie lefty Ranger Suarez, was in triple A until mid-June. And Nick Pivetta was muddling through a disappointing season as a starter before being moved to the bullpen last month.
But there they were — let’s call them “The Replacements” — combining to pitch 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the mighty Boston Red Sox offense in back-to-back Phillies victories.
"Our pitchers did a great job for two days straight. Our bullpen, in particular, was excellent," manager Gabe Kapler said. "These guys, they really want the ball."
When the season began, it wasn’t crazy to think that the Phillies could get this type of performance from the bullpen. But, if you had told Kapler that he would use five relievers to beat the Red Sox, he would have guessed that their names were Tommy Hunter, Adam Morgan, Hector Neris, Seranthony Dominguez, and David Robertson.
Instead, all except Neris are on the injured list. So, too, are Pat Neshek, Victor Arano, and Edubray Ramos. Hunter and Robertson are out for the rest of the season. Arano almost certainly is, too. If Morgan, Neshek, and Ramos pitch again, it won’t be until next month. Who knows about Dominguez?
And so, the Phillies are turning to “The Replacements,” most of whom were picked off the scrap heap after being discarded by other teams. They acquired Morin in a cash trade on July 20, after he was designated for assignment by the Minnesota Twins, and they signed Parker as a free agent 10 days later, after the Twins designated him, too. Last week, the Phillies claimed Hughes off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds.
“I think when that happens, players can get a chip on their shoulder," Kapler said. "They can have something to prove. They can say, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong for either trading me, DFAing me, sending me down.’ And that can bring out the best performance, especially with guys who have done it for several years in the past.”
So far, so good.
Morin, who has played for five teams since 2017, has posted a 3.07 ERA, struck out 10 in 14 2/3 walk-free innings, and taken on a higher-leverage role. Parker has a 3.72 ERA and a 14-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 9 2/3 innings. Hughes gave up a solo homer in his Phillies debut Sunday, but he also inherited a bases-loaded situation from starter Drew Smyly on Wednesday night and got out of it by retiring reigning American League MVP Mookie Betts.
Add lefty Jose Alvarez, who has quietly posted a 1.79 ERA since April 19, and the Phillies bullpen is dealing well with what Kapler likes to call “sub-optimal conditions.”
"It is a unique situation where a bunch of guys are kind of learning the system," Hughes said. "But I think communication is the key to that going successfully. We already have a group text going. Our friendship is blossoming. It's definitely been a family so far."
Everyone is learning on the fly. As much as the relievers — Morin, Parker, and Hughes, in particular — are trying to figure out how they might be deployed, the manager is gauging which situations are best for each of them.
Take Tuesday night’s game, for instance. Kapler called on Morin to face Betts and hot-hitting Rafael Devers in the eighth inning of a one-run game. He was surprised when Morin, known for his change-up rather than a swing-and-miss fastball, struck out Betts on an elevated heater and got Devers to line out to center field on a slider.
Morin explained that Betts and Devers had homered and singled, respectively, against him in a June 18 game in Minnesota. Betts hit a down-and-in sinker, Morin said, and Devers “crushed my change-up.”
"So, I wanted to do the opposite of what I did last time," Morin said.
It was an indication to Kapler that the right-hander can get out good hitters in more ways than one.
"That was a bit of information that I didn't have before," Kapler said. "So, are we still getting to know our relievers? Clearly."
Kapler describes the whole thing as "challenging and interesting."
It certainly isn’t typical. Most teams vying for a playoff spot don’t need to turn over almost their entire bullpen with six weeks left in the season. But, if the Phillies can snatch a wild-card spot, part of the reason will be that “The Replacements” were up to the challenge.