PITTSBURGH -- The Phillies relievers walked to the bullpen behind the center-field fence, but the pitcher who was their closer a night earlier was not with them. Instead, Ranger Suárez sat in the dugout Saturday night. And he’s no longer a reliever.
The Phillies will start their former closer on Monday night in Washington after shaking up their rotation this weekend at PNC Park. Suárez, Kyle Gibson, and Chase Anderson are in while Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore, and Spencer Howard are out.
Velasquez and Moore are now relievers while Howard was traded to Texas as part of the deal that landed Gibson. It was a drastic shuffle, but a move the Phillieds thought was necessary as they try to chase the first-place Mets.
“The back-end of our rotation has not been a strength for us,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “...If you’re going to get on a roll, you have to have four or five guys throwing well. Starting pitching, we haven’t had that on a consistent basis really all year.”
Velasquez and Moore combined for a 9.37 ERA in July and both were blitzed this week as they failed to keep the team in games. Manager Joe Girardi said the two pitchers will be used initially as long relievers.
“But we’ll see as we go along,” Girardi said. “You can have roles, but sometimes roles can change as we’ve seen.”
Suárez carved a role this season pitching in the late innings, but the left-hander said his goal was always to return to the starting rotation. So he was more than pleased Saturday afternoon after he was summoned to the manager’s office and informed that he was a starting pitcher again.
“It was something that I wanted at some point,” Suárez said. “I think I’m going to be able to do this.”
Suárez had a 1.12 ERA this season in 27 relief appearances and was moved in July to the closer role. But the ninth-inning now belongs to newly acquired Ian Kennedy. He thrived in the bullpen behind a sinker that induced weak contact and threw 64% of his pitches for strikes.
Suárez is expected to pitch just three innings Monday as the Phillies cap his pitch count around 50 pitches. But that number will increase as the pitcher builds arm strength. Unlike his relief role, Suárez will now have to face lineups two or three times, but the Phillies -- and Suárez -- think he can handle that.
“Ranger’s not a power guy. He’s a command guy,” Girardi said. “So the important thing is that his command holds up. And I think it will.”
“I have done that before,” Suárez said. “So I know I have to change it up a bit and do different things against hitters.”
The 25-year-old Suárez was a starter in the minors but missed a chance last year to start after contracting COVID-19 and was not included in the spring-training rotation competition after a visa problem delayed his arrival to camp. So now he’ll get his chance.
“We feel like we have to start getting some more distance out of our starters,” said Girardi. “I know we’re not going to get it the first couple of times through. We’ve always kind of envisioned Ranger as a starter. We just recognized that our rotation needs some help.”
Anderson allowed two runs in four innings Friday in relief of Velasquez and is pitching with decreased velocity since returning from the COVID-19 injured list. Anderson’s fastball averaged 90.3 mph on Friday and he threw his change-up for 40% of his pitches. The right-hander started the season in the rotation but was bumped to the bullpen after posting a 6.96 ERA in eight starts.
“You have to locate,” Girardi said. “His curveball seems to be a little bit better to me than when he had the COVID. His changeup is a really good pitch and probably the pitch that he’ll rely on heavily.”
Suárez last started a game on Sept. 30, 2018. It’s been so long that the left-hander said he couldn’t remember his last start. But after 67 appearances in the bullpen, his goal never wavered. He’ll get his wish Monday night.
“Like I have always said, I am ready for whatever role they need me for,” Suárez said. “So this is what I need to do now for the team. And I think I’m ready to do it.”