Ranger Suárez spent four weeks last summer quarantining in a Clearwater, Fla., hotel room after a positive test for COVID-19. His promising season was derailed and his left arm was inefficient by the time he joined the Phillies for the final stretch of a 60-game season.
But now Suárez — who pitched three scoreless innings Thursday in a 3-2 win over the Marlins in Miami — is giving the Phillies a glimpse of what they missed.
Needing to protect a two-run lead, Joe Girardi dropped Suárez into the fifth inning with the bases loaded and no outs. Spencer Howard ran out of gas after four strong innings and allowed three consecutive batters to reach base. It was up to Suárez to clean it up. He did just that.
Suárez has not allowed a run this season in 12 innings as he is quietly carving himself a role in the bullpen. He throws a heavy sinker, can give the Phillies multiple innings, and handles both right- and left-handed batters. There are several ways for Girardi to dispatch him. At the very least, he has earned a place.
Suárez used the sinker to strike out Pablo Lopez, the first batter he faced with the bases loaded, before the inning ended on an alert defensive play by Rhys Hoskins. Jesus Aguilar brought home a run on a sacrifice fly, but Hoskins cut off Odúbel Herrera’s throw home from center field and fired to third for the third out.
Suárez faced just two batters and escaped a dangerous bases-loaded, no outs situation by allowing just one run. It was a game-changing sequence. Suárez has allowed just five hits in 12 innings this season, with 11 strikeouts.
“He was nasty today. He got a lot of awkward swings. You know the stuff was there,” said Hoskins, who homered in the fourth. “Who knows how that game goes if Ranger can’t give us a little bit of length? He was huge for us today and I’m happy for him. He’s been working hard.”
Suárez retired eight of the nine batters he faced. He allowed just one hit and struck out three. Suárez pounded the Marlins with his sinker, which accounted for 46% of his pitches and two of his strikeouts. He started the season in the minors after a visa issue in Venezuela delayed his arrival to spring training. A late start has proved easier to overcome than a month in a hotel room.
“He’s been really good since we called him up. The whole time he’s been up here,” Girardi said. “He continues to impress. He’s been big for us.”
Last spring, Suárez was a leading candidate to make the starting rotation before camp was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. When the team reconvened in July, Suárez was left behind in a hotel after being one of seven players to test positive after an outbreak at the team’s Florida facility.
Suárez’s symptoms were not severe — he said he was just dizzy for a few days — but he was unable to throw or work out. He ordered food for delivery, talked to his family on FaceTime, and played video games. While his teammates prepared for the season, Suárez fell out of shape.
He joined the team in September, but the pitcher the Phillies watched for three outings was unrecognizable to the one who six months earlier made such an impression on Girardi. Suárez was hit around for nine runs in four innings, becoming unusable as the Phillies tried to stay in playoff contention.
Finally, the Phillies are again seeing the pitcher they saw more than a year ago.
“I think he’s better. I really do,” Girardi said. “I think his location is better. I think his velocity is better. When he came back last year from having COVID, he never caught up. That was unfortunate. There have been some players it affected longer than others. But I think he was better than he was last spring.”
The way the Phillies used Suárez on Thursday may be the best way to utilize him out of the bullpen. Howard will be on a pitch count the rest of the season, which at least allows the Phillies to know they’ll need four or five innings of bullpen coverage every fifth day.
Howard retired 12 of the first 14 batters he faced Thursday before fading in the fifth. The Phillies likely will not push him any further than five innings this year. His velocity stayed consistent, but his command became erratic after he threw 50 pitches.
Enter Suárez. The Phillies could pitch him every fifth day after Howard reaches his pitch count and ask the left-hander to provide the innings they need to get to the back of their bullpen.
“I think that’s possible, but if I need Ranger in other spots, I don’t want to not use him to hold back for the fifth day just because you never know what’s going to happen,” Girardi said. “He gives us a second lefty out of the bullpen who also gets righties out. The piggyback idea is a great idea, but I’m not sure when I’m going to need him and that’s the only problem.”
The game was not won when Suárez finished the seventh inning by throwing just 10 pitches, but imagine how different the afternoon could have gone if Suárez folded in the fifth.
José Alvarado blew the lead in the eighth, Odubel Herrera tripled in the ninth, and Ronald Torreyes beat a throw to first to bring home the go-ahead run. The Phillies left Miami with a four-game split and it would not have been possible without Suárez.
They’ll open a series Saturday in Tampa, where just miles away Suárez’ season faded last summer in a hotel room. And now he returns with a key role in the Phillies’ bullpen.