PITTSBURGH -- Zach Phillips hadn't pitched in the Majors since 2013 when the Pirates called him up in Philadelphia two weeks ago. But the Bucs didn't hesitate to throw him into their bullpen -- or into the fire.
In Monday night's 12-2 loss to the Cubs, the 30-year-old lefty reliever entered the game with nobody out and the bases loaded in the fourth inning. He was tasked with facing Anthony Rizzo, one of the Cubs' two National League Most Valuable Player Award candidates, and struck him out on four pitches, burying a slider below the strike zone for the final whiff.
Four pitches later, Willson Contreras bounced a two-seamer into an inning-ending double play, and Phillips was out of the inning unscathed. It was only slightly more intimidating than his assignment on Sept. 23, when he struck out Nats slugger Bryce Harper with the bases loaded.
"I just look at it as another hitter," Phillips said of his newfound role as a high-leverage fireman. "I've done that before in the Minor Leagues quite a bit. You've got to focus on getting that first guy out and then going from there, one batter a time."
Could Phillips be pitching his way into next year's bullpen? With the Bucs all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, they are using the rest of the season to evaluate their options going forward. That may include Phillips, quietly acquired in a trade with the Orioles on Aug. 31.
Phillips has allowed four hits and a walk while striking out six over 5 1/3 innings with the Pirates. Though his overall numbers for Triple-A Norfolk were underwhelming, particularly his 4.45 ERA in 49 appearances, he put up some intriguing peripheral numbers. Phillips struck out 84 batters in 60 2/3 innings with a 1.73 groundout-to-flyout ratio.
The Bucs likely will have openings in next year's bullpen heading into the offseason. In many ways, Phillips fits their pitching profile -- and he's making a good first impression.
"Everybody out there is trying to get something done, especially guys in transition like this," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Zach's ground-ball contact rate was something we were impressed with when he was in Baltimore, getting the ball on the ground.
"He's showing you things you want to see out of people that are hungry for opportunity."
Around the horn
• Outfielder Gregory Polanco (left facial contusion) returned to the lineup Tuesday for the first time since leaving Friday's game following a collision with the left-field wall. Polanco started in left field, batting second.
• Outfielder Starling Marte, who had been sidelined due to lower back tightness, pinch-hit in the fifth inning Tuesday against the Cubs, grounding out. It was his first game action since Thursday.
• David Freese's home run on Monday night was the Pirates' eighth pinch-hit blast of the season, the most Pittsburgh has hit since its pinch-hitters went deep nine times in 2007.