It was all still fresh — the back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning, the gut-punch 4-3 loss to another non-contending team, the wasted opportunity to gain ground in the playoff race — when manager Joe Girardi sat down in the Phillies’ Zoom room Thursday night and got the question that he knew was coming.
Is it time to remove homer-prone Ian Kennedy from the closer role?
“We look at it every day,” Girardi said. “But I mean, he’s our closer.”
Girardi insisted Friday that would still be the case if another save situation arises against the Colorado Rockies. In the light of day, with a clear-eyed view of the situation, Girardi wasn’t ready to make any changes.
The Phillies traded for Kennedy, 36, on July 30 because they wanted a steadier hand at the end of games. He has stumbled, not as dreadfully as Brandon Workman last year but badly enough, allowing six homers in 13⅔ innings after giving up only five in 32⅓ with the Texas Rangers.
To be fair, two of those homers with the Phillies came in non-save situations. Kennedy is also five days removed from recording six outs in a 10-inning victory in Miami and had retired 12 of 13 batters before Thursday night. He set down the first two Rockies before allowing a single to rookie Colton Welker and hanging a two-strike changeup to Ryan McMahon, who slugged a go-ahead two-run homer. Kennedy then left a fastball over the plate for Sam Hilliard to launch into the second deck in right field.
It marked Kennedy’s second blown save in eight chances and the Phillies’ 30th as a team, most in the majors. They dropped 13 of 24 games in which they blew at least one save. Win half of those, and they might be in first place rather than trailing the Atlanta Braves by 3½ games with 22 remaining.
There’s nothing the Phillies can do about that now, as Girardi often points out. But can they take steps to avoid coughing up future ninth-inning leads? They have alternatives to Kennedy, though it isn’t clear any would be an upgrade, especially since Kennedy was acquired to help improve the existing group.
Here’s a look at a few possibilities:
Before you avert your eyes, consider this: Neris hasn’t allowed a run since Aug. 15. In 22⅓ innings over 22 appearances since July 26, the erstwhile closer has given up one run (0.40 ERA) on only nine hits and nine walks while racking up 33 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .118 with one homer against him in that span.
So yes, if Girardi wants to ride the hot hand, nobody has been better than Neris. And it wouldn’t be the first time Neris has fumbled the closer job only to regain it before the end of a season. It happened in 2018 and again last year.
But Girardi also doesn’t seem inclined to mess with what’s been working. Neris’ confidence couldn’t be much higher. He has sprinkled in the slider to offset his fastball and signature splitter, and the mix is working for him. Girardi, in turn, has used Neris in high-leverage situations before the ninth inning, often against the heart of a batting order.
“My feeling is, I need to be able to deploy Héctor when I need to,” Girardi said. “You’ve got to get to the ninth.”
If this was a few weeks ago, with Bradley on a roll in which he allowed two earned runs in 20⅔ innings for a 0.87 ERA, he would surely be a closer alternative. But he has stubbed a few toes lately, too, giving up runs in four of his last seven appearances, including a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning last Saturday night in Miami.
The issue then, according to Bradley, was his fastball command. He gave up three hits, all on heaters that caught too much of the middle of the plate. It was better on Sunday when he retired the side in the eighth inning against the Marlins.
Bradley has the experience of closing out games for Arizona and will continue to figure into the late-inning mix for Girardi, regardless of whether it’s the ninth inning.
When the Phillies demoted Neris from the closer role in June, Alvarado was the first choice to replace him. It was short-lived, largely because the hard-throwing lefty has a 19.1% walk rate, highest in the majors among relievers with at least 25 appearances.
It seems doubtful Alvarado would be trusted with the ninth inning, although he also hasn’t allowed a run in his last 10 appearances.
In cycling through closers in June, Ranger Suárez was the Phillies’ third choice after Neris and Alvarado. But they shifted Suárez into the rotation last month, a move that would have seemed like robbing from Peter to pay Paul except that they traded for Kennedy to help the bullpen.
It may be, then, that the Phillies don’t have much choice but to stay the course.
“He’s had some big saves for us and some tough saves for us, too,” Girardi said of Kennedy. “I don’t think that he’s not capable of doing it because I’ve seen him do it. He just didn’t do it [Thursday] night.”