Joaquin Benoit arrived Monday afternoon to Citizens Bank Park and was summoned to a meeting he did not expect. His bosses told the 39-year-old righthander that he would start closing games for them.
"I believe everybody was surprised," Benoit said.
The Phillies removed Jeanmar Gomez as closer one week into the season, a decision that carries less importance for a rebuilding team. It could elevate Benoit's trade value, but probably not. It could allow Hector Neris to continue as a shutdown setup man. It could relieve some stress in the middle innings, where Gomez will reprise his role as a multiple-innings pitcher.
The closer's job is not cemented. The Phillies have traded two closers (Jonathan Papelbon and Ken Giles) in the last two years. Benoit, for now, is the man.
"We all know what a fantastic job Gomez did for us last year," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was very important to whatever success we had. But he's not a prototypical closer. We have guys that have the potential to be closers. We'll just go from there. I'll start with Benoit. He's handled it before. He's saved games before. He's the guy that I think can handle it the best right now."
Gomez blew a save Sunday, and that was enough for Mackanin to institute a change. Mackanin anointed Gomez as the closer before spring training began because of the Venezuelan's 37 saves last season.
"We got to this point because of the two games he appeared in," Mackanin said. "I didn't like what I saw, so I just thought it was the best thing for the team."
The Phillies picked Benoit over Neris because the team sees more value in Neris as a fireman reliever who could record more than three outs when needed. Use Sunday's game as an example. Pat Neshek encountered trouble. He put runners on the corners with two outs in the seventh inning of a three-run game.
Neris entered. He threw one pitch to Jose Lobaton, the Washington catcher, and induced a groundout to shortstop. Inning over. Neris returned to post another zero in a scattered, 18-pitch eighth inning. It worked.
Last season, Neris recorded more than three outs in a game nine times. He was often tasked with cleaning someone else's mess, then to continue to hold a lead in the next inning. He did it well. That, as Andrew Miller and the Indians proved last fall, is a coveted skill.
"Neris is pretty valuable where he's at right now," Mackanin said. "Most likely, at some point in his career, his time will come."
Benoit, over the previous three seasons, recorded more than three outs in a game just six times. He is a one-inning pitcher. He does it well. He still throws hard. Fewer teams chase saves now, but perhaps a few months as a decent ninth-inning man could escalate Benoit's trade value in July.
Benoit, who turns 40 in July, will be one of the oldest Phillies closers ever. Ron Reed recorded 22 saves after his 39th birthday. Kent Tekulve had 11 and Tom Gordon had eight.
"I wasn't really expecting it this early, this change," Benoit said. "But it's the situation they have to address. I guess they have their choice and that was me."