MIAMI - One night after the Phillies confronted their 10-years-running fate of “wait ‘til next year,” this year’s biggest revelation raised his hand to be heard from one more time.
Ranger Suárez shut out the Miami Marlins for seven innings in a playing-out-the-string 5-0 win here Friday night. It marked the Phillies’ 82nd victory and clinched their first winning season since 2011. And although it was small consolation for their playoff drought reaching a solid decade, it’s necessary to crawl before you can walk.
Bryce Harper, two games from the end of his third season with the Phillies, realizes as much now, not that it makes sitting out the playoffs any easier to bear.
“When I signed up to play here, I wasn’t worried about winning seasons, right?” Harper said. “You sit there and you think it’s going to happen no matter what. You think as a team, as an organization, you build it to be great. As we sit here, we have our first winning season in a long time. And that’s great for the Phillies. But I don’t want it to be like that.
“I don’t want to think to ourselves, ‘Hey, this is great. We have a winning season.’ Whatever that number is at the end of the year, we need to be better. Looking at ourselves in the mirror, wondering as a team, as an organization, what do we want the Phillies to be? How do we want to build it? How good can we be next year?”
It will be difficult for Harper to top an MVP-worthy season. He added to his candidacy -- and rinsed some of the bitterness of an 0-for-11, five-strikeout series against the division-winning Braves this week in Atlanta -- with an RBI double and his 35th homer of the season after rolling his left ankle earlier in the game. In his 70th consecutive game, he boosted his slugging percentage to .614 and his on-base-plus-slugging to 1.041.
But the lasting image from a sparsely attended game in South Florida was Suárez, matter-of-factly as ever, twirling his glove in the air as he walked off the mound after first baseman Brad Miller caught a soft liner to end the seventh inning.
Suárez began the season at the Lehigh Valley training site. He ended it with a 21-inning scoreless streak and a 1.36 ERA in 106 innings spanning 27 relief appearances and 12 starts. He was a long reliever in May, a closer in July, and the best starter down the stretch in a rotation that includes Cy Young contender Zack Wheeler.
Oh, but there’s more. Suárez, who missed almost all of last season after getting sick with COVID-19 and arrived late to spring training because of a visa problem, is the first pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968 and the first Phillies pitcher since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1915 to finish a season with an ERA of less than 1.40 in at least 100 innings and 10 starts.
And if you claim to have seen any of it coming from the 26-year-old lefty, well, you’re full of baloney. Not even Miss Cleo could have predicted this.
“You have to aim really high to accomplish things like that,” Suárez said through a team translator. “Sometimes you don’t think you’re capable of doing things like that. But when they happen, it goes to show that the hard work, everything you do, it pays off and makes sense.”
Suárez did everything so coolly in his breakout season. Get a seven-out save the day before the All-Star break at Fenway Park? No problem. Move to the rotation at the end of July? Sure thing. Harper is fond of saying Suárez has “no heartbeat.”
Harper also would like to nominate Suárez for a postseason award: National League Comeback Player of the Year.
“For him to come back [from COVID-19] and do his job like he did for us, I have no higher praise for him,” Harper said. “He did an incredible job, and I just see him getting better. I see him just being one of the top guys in our rotation.
“Every time he goes out there, we have an opportunity to win a game. Every time he goes out there, no moment is too big. If we were going to get in the postseason, he was going to be one of the reasons why we won it.”
Indeed, Suárez’s role next year isn’t in question. Long before he held the Marlins to six hits (all singles) and one walk and rolled two of his signature double-play grounders, he cemented his spot in a rotation with Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson, and Zach Eflin that figures to be the Phillies’ strength if they’re going to parlay a winning season into one that continues into the playoffs.
“I think you have to take steps a lot of times,” manager Joe Girardi said. “To finish above .500 is important, and we need to build on that.”