Try not to smile watching Brett Phillips pitch

July 3rd, 2021

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Baseball is fun, as likes to say. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he managed to bring some joy to the Rays’ lopsided 11-1 loss to the Blue Jays on Friday night at Sahlen Field.

OK, maybe it was a little surprising that the Rays' outfielder entertained the crowd from the mound.

With Tampa Bay trailing Toronto by nine runs heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, Phillips sprinted out of the Rays’ bullpen -- think retired reliever Jared Hughes, but possibly more intense and certainly more fleet of foot -- and made it to the mound to work an inning in his first professional pitching appearance.

“July 2, 2021: where dreams became a reality,” Phillips said Saturday. “I like to think that I have like a Mariano Rivera-esque cutter, a Randy Johnson-type fastball, a repertoire that I didn't even show last night because I didn't have to. So when [manager Kevin Cash] asked me if I could pitch, of course.”

What was behind the sprint to the mound? “That’s the approach I take when I come out of the bullpen, just ready to go,” Phillips said. His first offering? A 94.3-mph fastball for a ball to Jonathan Davis. Hey, this is the same guy who knew he had an 80-grade arm, after all.

“He threw it very hard,” Rays catcher Francisco Mejía confirmed through interpreter Manny Navarro.

After that, Phillips didn’t throw anything that topped 50.4 mph on the radar gun, lobbing in pitches to some of Toronto’s toughest hitters. And it worked -- sort of, anyway.

“I was just glad that I was able to establish a fastball early,” Phillips added. “And then it kept the hitters guessing from then on out. The Mariano Rivera cutter that I was throwing, I wish I could have thrown it a little more for strikes.”

Phillips, who said he last pitched as a 14-year-old playing travel ball, got Davis to fly out to center field then nearly snagged Reese McGuire’s grounder, reacting with great enthusiasm and appreciation when shortstop Wander Franco made the play behind him for the second out.

Then Marcus Semien singled, despite swinging and missing on a 48.3-mph pitch, and Phillips walked Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. with a bunch of pitches well above the strike zone. Guerrero fouled off one of them with a mighty hack, perhaps looking to knock one out of the park for his 28th homer.

“To be honest with you, I went into that prepared just to make one swing,” Guerrero said Friday. “I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do one swing, and that’s it. If he walks me, he walks me. If he strikes me out, he strikes me out. But I’m just going to take one swing.’”

Phillips allowed an RBI single to Santiago Espinal before retiring Teoscar Hernández. You might have noticed Phillips chirping at someone while he was warming up in the bullpen. That was Hernández, a former teammate, and Phillips called it his “intimidation factor.”

“Essentially trying to get in his head by letting him know that he's got no chance. I even let him know what was coming: Mariano Rivera cutter was coming in,” Phillips said. “I think I had a swing and miss on him. He's an All-Star. So it says a lot about my pitching skills.”

Phillips displayed a creative delivery from the time he started warming up in the bullpen, to the point when he made such a dramatic move that he dropped the ball and balked, until the very end. He drew some comparisons to Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, although Phillips noted that “The Bird” wouldn’t have balked like he did.

“I necessarily have my original style, but some people on Twitter are already calling me the next Shohei,” Phillips said. “I don't know how I feel about that. It's kind of rewarding.”

On a more serious note, Cash said he appreciated Phillips giving the bullpen a break in a game that was already out of hand. Ideally, Phillips’ entertaining outing will take the edge off a rough stretch for the Rays -- and, apparently, keep future opponents wary of the Rivera/Big Unit/Ohtani-esque presence they might see at some point.

“In a game like that, you've got to save pitching. You've got to save the bullpen,” Phillips said. “Things haven't gone our way the last couple games, and that's just baseball. And we've seen it a time or two, and unfortunately things like that are going to happen. Games like that are going to happen. So bounce back here today and get out there and compete.”