Ramon Rosso left the Phillies bullpen Friday night at an empty Citizens Bank Park and entered a game higher than double A for just the 15th time in his career.
It was his 63rd professional appearance, but just his third as a reliever. Five years earlier, Rosso nearly quit baseball to become an auto mechanic in Spain. And now -- for his major-league debut -- Rosso was thrust into the season’s first high-leverage spot.
Joe Girardi had 11 relievers to choose from after pulling Aaron Nola in the sixth inning of a 5-2 season-opening loss to the Miami Marlins, but the new manager pulled Rosso, a hard-throwing yet unproven 24-year-old, from the lot. Rosso uncorked two wild pitches, allowed an RBI double, and the inning collapsed like an old Fiat.
A two-run deficit became a four-run hole that the Phillies could not climb out of. It was just one loss, but every game carries more weight in a 60-game sprint. And it was not the way to start a three-game series with the Marlins, who lost 105 games in 2019 but had a winning record against the Phillies.
“These games count a lot,” said Didi Gregorius, who homered in the fifth for his first hit with the Phillies and had two of the team’s five hits. “We don’t have a lot of time to catch back up if we fall too far back.”
The Phillies struck out nine times and were stymied by Marlins righthander Sandy Alcantara, who allowed three hits, struck out seven, and pitched into the seventh inning. The lineup, even with a designated hitter, lacked muscle on Day 1. Andrew McCutchen, Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, and J.T. Realmuto -- the first four Phillies batters -- combined to go 1-for-14. The season’s first loss wasn’t shouldered just on the bullpen.
The stands were empty Friday night, but a group of fans gathered at the fence beyond Ashburn Alley to briefly provide an authentic soundtrack instead of the canned crowd noise pumped through the speakers. The Phillie Phanatic watched from the lower bowl and the players exchanged elbow taps and air high fives when they were introduced on the field for opening day.
“The fans outside center field yelling and screaming is something I probably won’t forget,” Girardi said.
A strange season officially began Friday and the bullpen frustrations provided a sense of normalcy. The Phillies upgrade their rotation -- Zack Wheeler -- and their lineup -- Gregorius -- this winter but did little to address their bullpen.
After Rosso broke down, Girardi’s next three relievers were Reggie McClain, Austin Davis, and Trevor Kelley. McClain and Kelley were claimed off waivers and Davis was optioned nearly 15 times last season between the majors and triple A. The Phillies handed Girardi an 11-man bullpen, but it’s not quite a showroom.
Rosso entered in the sixth inning, but he was called on to face the middle of Miami’s lineup with one out and a runner on second. Perhaps it wasn’t the best spot for an inexperienced reliever to make his big-league debut. Nick Pivetta or Tommy Hunter would have been better options. But Girardi said he wanted to stay away from Pivetta until Saturday as the righthander pitched on Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park. Instead, Girardi went with Rosso and the Marlins jumped him.
“We thought it was a pretty good matchup with the hitters that they had coming up,” Girardi said. “That didn’t work quite the way that we wanted it to. He got the big strikeout and thought that he might get out of it, but he gave up the double to Cooper and that expanded the lead to 5-1.”
Nola allowed five runs, four of which were earned, in 5 1/3 innings. Two of his charged runs were scored against Rosso. Nola struck out seven, walked one, and allowed five hits. He relied heavily on his change-up as he threw it for 25 of his 79 pitches and his average fastball velocity was 91.5 mph, a tick slower than it was in 2019. Nola’s velocity dip could be a result of him catching up after not having a full three-week summer camp.
“I’ve only been on the mound three times since the quarantine and I feel like that’s kind of expected,” Nola said. “I feel like it will go up a little bit as I keep getting up on the mound and keep going out there every fifth day. I’m not really worried about, I’m just trying to command all three of my pitches.”
Nola started the sixth inning by walking Miguel Rojas, Miami’s No. 9 hitter. Two batters later, he worked ahead against Jesus Aguilar before his 0-2 curveball was hammered for a two-run homer. Corey Dickerson followed with a double and Nola’s night was finished. Girardi walked to the mound, called on Rosso, and the inning turned into a wreck.
“We’ve all been there,” Girardi said. “That first game. Sometimes it goes really well and then sometimes it doesn’t. But I still really believe in that young man. He’ll get through it.”