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‘I never expected to throw 100′: Inside the reemergence of the Phillies’ Seranthony Domínguez

Is it possible Domínguez is actually better now than before he injured his elbow? "I think he understands himself better," pitching coach Caleb Cotham says.

Two years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, Phillies right-hander Seranthony Domínguez has been among the best relievers in baseball.
Two years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, Phillies right-hander Seranthony Domínguez has been among the best relievers in baseball.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Everybody told Seranthony Domínguez to be patient.

That’s what the doctors and trainers kept saying. Coaches, too. Even Héctor Rondón and Neftalí Feliz, pitchers who joined the Phillies after Domínguez had a right elbow ligament reconstructed on July 30, 2020, and were gone long before he returned to a major league mound 430 days later, assured him that his electric fastball would come back if only he gave it time.

But there he was, throwing a bullpen session at a field near his home in the Dominican Republic a few days before reporting for spring training in March — 20 months post-surgery — and fighting a tsunami of self-doubt.

“I was throwing like 93 [mph],” Domínguez said the other day. “I think I maybe touched 94 the last time before spring. My velo was not there. What can I do? I had a lot of questions in my mind.”

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Here’s one: What might Domínguez have said that day if you told him that he would be blowing 100-mph sinkers past hitters in August?

“No chance,” he said, laughing. “I’d say, ‘No chance.’”

Nearly three-quarters of the way through the season, there isn’t a better Phillies success story. Entering this weekend’s series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park, Domínguez had a 1.64 ERA, sixth among National League relievers with at least 40 appearances. He had 54 strikeouts in 44 innings, and allowed a run Wednesday for the first time since July 10. He isn’t merely effective again. He’s dominating.

Internally, the discussion among team officials isn’t about which reliever from an improved bullpen they trust the most with a game on the line. It’s whether Domínguez might actually be better now than he was in 2018, when he made a meteoric rise from a converted high-A starter to a closer in the majors.

“I mean, he’s a better pitcher,” said pitching coach Caleb Cotham. “I think he understands himself better. From my perspective, he understands what he’s trying to do to hitters better.”

Case in point: From 2018 to 2019, Domínguez held right-handed batters to a feeble .135/.232/.186 slash line but was relatively hittable against lefties (.243/.331/.410). This season, he’s chewing up righties (.161/.250/.226) and lefties (.183/.231/.300) alike.

Oh, and about the velocity: Domínguez’s sinker and four-seam fastball are averaging 98.1 and 97.4 mph, respectively, on par with his 2018 radar readings (98.1 and 98.0 mph).

So, how did Domínguez go from 93 mph at home in March to 100 mph on four of his eight pitches Monday night in Cincinnati?

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“I don’t know,” he said. “I never imagined that my velo would come back like it is right now. I never expected to throw 100.”

Said Cotham: “I don’t know if I have a great answer. It’s close enough to what he’s been in the past, so I think it’s just distance away from the surgery. But the biggest thing is just a credit to how hard he’s worked.”

The roots of Domínguez’s comeback may be in a gym that he built at his home in Mao, a city in the northwest region of the Dominican Republic, and the two-a-day workouts that became his offseason routine.

Domínguez’s elbow didn’t feel right through the first three months of the 2019 season. He finally succumbed to the pain during an outing in San Diego in early June and didn’t pitch again until the following spring.

The Phillies were optimistic that Domínguez would be pain-free in 2020. No dice. He went for an MRI exam on the day that MLB shut down spring training because of the pandemic and was told he would need Tommy John surgery. But when? Most non-emergency procedures were on hold, and even if Domínguez could have it done, it wouldn’t have been before travel restrictions prevented him from getting home for the birth of his first son.

Domínguez delayed the surgery until July 2020. After the standard 12-month rehab, he appeared in a game for high-A Jersey Shore last Aug. 3. Two months later, he pitched one inning in the season finale in Miami, retiring three consecutive batters.

It was a triumph. But Domínguez topped out at 96 mph once and averaged 95.1. He knew he wasn’t back yet.

“I felt good, but I didn’t feel that strong,” Domínguez said. “I felt really weak.”

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Domínguez went home and got to work. Some days, he said, he would work out in his home gym before going to a nearby field to run and play catch and then getting back in the gym. Others, he would double up on running and playing catch, with gym time in between.

The Phillies gave Domínguez a program to follow. But once the owners locked out the players on Dec. 1, he couldn‘t have contact with team officials, including assistant athletic trainer Joe Rauch, who helped oversee Domínguez’s rehab.

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“I just did the things I learned from the Phillies, the way I was working before,” Domínguez said. “If I go 100 percent, now I’ve got to go 300, 400 percent. I’ve got to work double because I’ve got to pull myself back to the big leagues. It’s not easy.”

But what if Domínguez‘s stuff never came back? It crossed his mind. He remembered talking to Rondón and Feliz, Tommy John survivors who returned and had success as closers. Feliz had surgery in 2013 and posted a 1.99 ERA for the Texas Rangers in 2014. His advice: take it slow.

“Feliz talked to me about, ‘Someday you’re going to feel good enough to play catch, but it’s a long process,’” Domínguez said. “At the end of the day, I just said, ‘You’ve got to do your thing, and whatever happens, you’ve got to be good to yourself that you gave your best effort.’ If you do your best effort, no matter what happens after that, it’s something you can’t control.”

It’s common for pitchers to build velocity in the second year after Tommy John surgery. Domínguez has followed that trend. According to Statcast, his average sinker velocity increased from 96.8 mph in April to 97.4 in May, 98.7 in June, 98.6 in July, and 99.4 in August, while his four-seam fastball went from 96.3 mph in April to 97.4 in May, 98.0 in June, 98.2 in July, and 98.6 in August.

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Domínguez’s role in the bullpen has evolved, too. He began the season behind closer Corey Knebel, Jeurys Familia, and lefty Brad Hand in the late-inning pecking order. The Phillies were careful to monitor his usage and workload. But Knebel was removed from the ninth-inning role in mid-June after Joe Girardi got fired. Familia struggled, too, leading to his release on Aug. 2.

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Under interim manager Rob Thomson, the Phillies haven’t used a standard closer but rather deployed relievers in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings based on matchups against pockets of the opposing lineup.

Domínguez almost always gets the call in the highest-leverage situation, although the Phillies remain wary of pushing him too hard.

“We do want to take care of him as much as anybody, and it’s still going on,” Cotham said. “We want him to be strong, and we want him to be really good all the way to November.”

After the Phillies rallied for three runs in the eighth inning Aug. 10 against Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, the bullpen door swung open and Domínguez stepped through. Citizens Bank Park was only half full, but the crowd stood. It got loud. Domínguez retired the side on 14 pitches, including a game-ending strikeout of slugging Jesús Aguilar on a 98.9-mph heater.

If the Phillies hold on to a wild-card spot, there will be more dramatic ninth innings ahead.

Is there any doubt who will be on the mound?

“It’s like a dream,” Domínguez said. “I’d like to get to the playoffs for the first time. And why not get the final out? That’s the dream. Get the final out of the World Series. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of from the moment they made me a reliever.”

At last, the reality is setting in. Domínguez is as good as he’s ever been.

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