Before Friday night, Sam Coonrod’s last save opportunity was your basic relief pitcher’s nightmare.
It was last Sept. 25. The San Francisco Giants, teetering in the wild-card race, asked Coonrod to safeguard a two-run lead against the San Diego Padres. Instead, he gave up a leadoff single, a one-out walk, and a walk-off, three-run homer to Trent Grisham.
Coonrod didn’t make another appearance for the Giants. He finished the abbreviated season with a 9.82 ERA and got traded in January to the Phillies for minor-league right-hander Carson Ragsdale in Dave Dombrowski’s second deal as president of baseball operations.
Four months later, it looks like a steal.
It’s still early, but Coonrod has emerged as a trustworthy late-inning option for the Phillies. Through Friday night, when he filled in for closer Héctor Neris and saved a tension-filled 2-1 win over the New York Mets, he had a 1.50 ERA and the fifth-best average fastball velocity (98 mph) among National League relievers.
Most notable, though, is his improved command.
Coonrod had an 11.9% walk rate over the last two seasons in San Francisco. After the blown save against the Padres, Giants manager Gabe Kapler said the right-hander’s problem “is getting in the zone and staying in the zone.”
“It’s not his stuff. It never has been and never will be,” Kapler said then. “His key to being an elite major-league reliever is just throwing a ton of strikes. It’s also the thing that’s holding him back from being an elite reliever right now.”
This season, the 28-year-old Coonrod has walked two of 45 batters, a 4.4% rate. He credits veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler, his long-toss partner before games in the outfield, for helping him to harness his electric stuff.
“Basically my whole career I haven’t realized that I was creating bad habits in catch,” Coonrod said Friday night. “We play catch, we do things right. [Kintzler] taught me how to play catch correctly, with a purpose instead of just going out there and slinging the ball, and it’s translated to the mound.”
Stylistically, Coonrod and Kintzler couldn’t be much different. Coonrod throws blazing heaters — a rising four-seamer and sinking two-seamer — roughly three-quarters of the time. Kintzler is a sinkerballer who averages only about 91 mph and relies on getting weak groundouts.
But Kintzler has survived for a decade in the majors because he knows that dominant stuff isn’t everything.
“Kintzler has helped me so much,” Coonrod said. “Just helping me get ahead [in the count]. Pitching ahead is way easier than pitching behind. I know that’s pretty obvious, but whenever you’re able to go out there and get ahead, it just makes everything easier.”
Like many late-inning relievers, Coonrod thrives on emotion. He had to be held back from returning to the field Wednesday night in St. Louis after pitching a scoreless eighth inning and yelling at the Cardinals’ dugout in response to Bryce Harper’s beaning and Didi Gregorius’ getting hit in the ribs on consecutive pitches two innings earlier.
But Coonrod kept it together Friday night, even though tempers were flaring after José Alvarado jawed with Mets outfielder Dominic Smith and touched off a dugouts- and bullpens-clearing dust-up in the eighth inning.
Bench coach Rob Thomson, filling in while manager Joe Girardi attended his daughter’s college graduation in Florida, called on Coonrod because Neris and rookie Connor Brogdon were unavailable after pitching on back-to-back days. Coonrod coolly worked around a one-out walk of Brandon Nimmo by getting struggling Mets star Francisco Lindor to ground out.
“Shoot, he came in in an emotional game and threw the heck out of the ball,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “But we’ve seen that since the start. He’s chucking the ball, man. It’s an uncomfortable at-bat for the opposing team. We haven’t had a whole lot of that in the last couple years. It’s nice to have that in a 2-1 ballgame.”
Said Thomson: “He’s really been throwing strikes lately. He’s just done a great job. He’s got a great arm. He’s got great stuff. And now we know he can handle those high-leverage innings. It’s just an added bonus to a pretty good bullpen.”
Harper, Realmuto getting closer
Harper missed a third consecutive game Saturday night with soreness in his left wrist, which absorbed the ricochet of the 97-mph fastball that hit him in the face Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, catcher J.T. Realmuto wasn’t in the lineup for a second consecutive game after taking the game-ending wild pitch off his left hand Thursday in St. Louis. But unlike Friday night, Realmuto was available to come off the bench, a sign that he’s getting closer to getting behind the plate.
Gregorius started at shortstop after being reinstated from the COVID-19 injury list. The Phillies optioned catcher Rafael Marchan to the Lehigh Valley alternate site. But they placed Roman Quinn on the COVID list and recalled fellow outfielder Mickey Moniak. ... Girardi rejoined the team before the game. … Rookie infielder Nick Maton, bumped up to the No. 6 spot in the order, is the first Phillies player with five multihit games in his first 10 major-league games since Jimmy Rollins in 2000. … Zach Eflin will start the series finale on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He will be opposed by Mets lefty David Peterson.