DETROIT -- As much as he’d probably hate to admit it, whether Connor Phillips sticks around for the rest of the Reds’ postseason push depends on a lot of things beyond his control.
Where Cincinnati is in the NL Wild Card standings. When Alex Young and Ben Lively are activated. The state of the bullpen.
And so, Phillips is doing what any smart player in his position would: focusing on what he can control.
- Games remaining: at DET (1), at NYM (3), vs. MIN (3), vs. PIT (3), at CLE (2), at STL (3)
- Standings update: The Reds (76-71) moved ahead of the D-backs (76-71) for the third NL Wild Card spot. Though they have the same record, Cincinnati holds the tiebreaker over Arizona by virtue of winning the season series, 4-3.
“Coming up here, it's kind of like a new life. It’s kind of kickstarted again,” Phillips said. “It's a lot of fun up here. Guys want to win; I want to win. So, give me the ball every five days, I'm going to take it, and I'm going to give it my best.”
Phillips’ big league debut came just over a week ago out of necessity, as the Reds’ pitching corps was decimated by COVID. A follow-up nod was not guaranteed, but Cincinnati’s No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline held his own enough to earn the ball on Wednesday night at Comerica Park.
As the Reds ultimately won, 4-3, against the Tigers to secure a series victory and move ahead of Arizona for the third NL Wild Card, Phillips also took another step forward.
Much like in his first career start, Phillips’ final line didn’t quite tell the story of his night. All five of his earned runs against Seattle came on a pair of home runs in his first go-round. Against Detroit, two of his three earned runs occurred on one hung fastball that Spencer Torkelson took deep in the third inning.
While ability to dodge the long ball is enviable, it’s also not the only measuring stick, although Phillips has also proven capable in that area with just one homer allowed in 11 games with Triple-A Louisville this season prior to his promotion to the Majors.
Ability to limit damage is much more important, even more so when control is an issue, and Phillips has done that in both starts so far. On Wednesday, he bounced back from Torkelson’s homer to freeze Kerry Carpenter on strike three and then coaxed Andy Ibáñez into a harmless flyout to end the frame.
Phillips then allowed just one other run on a double in the fourth. He didn’t have the accuracy he’d brought into his seven-strikeout showing against the Mariners, but he managed to pitch around four walks, a wild pitch and a hit batter in his four-plus innings as well to prove he’s capable under pressure.
“He has great stuff, and I think any young player -- any pitcher -- you have to show yourself that you can do it, and trust it,” manager David Bell said. “If anything, [younger players] try to make the pitches too perfect or too good, and really, he's good enough. It’s just part of the development.”
That Phillips will see plenty of pressure moving forward isn’t a question as Cincinnati continues to elbow its way into contention with 15 games to go. Which part of the game he will pitch in is more of the mystery.
Phillips was originally promoted as a substitute player for Brandon Williamson, who was part of the group of Reds that contracted COVID. Williamson returned for Tuesday’s opener though, and with Lively due to return from the COVID IL any day now, it might make the most sense to shift Phillips to a long-relief role.
The move would certainly boost a bullpen that’s shouldered a whole lot of unexpected weight this season, the most recent of which was Tejay Antone’s early exit with right elbow discomfort in the sixth. The Reds used seven pitchers on Tuesday and eight on Wednesday, putting additional pressure on what was already likely going to be a patchwork game in the series finale.
Working in Cincinnati’s favor are three off-days in the final 17 days of the season. Even so, can the pitching staff continue to keep it together long enough for a postseason splash?
“Hell yeah,” said Lucas Sims, who finished the sixth inning for Antone to earn his 22nd hold. “We'll be ready. This time of year, everybody's ready.”