For the first time all year, the Phillies are finally facing some adversity.
At 47-24, the Phillies still hold an eight-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East, but the squad has fallen back down to Earth over the past week.

A split in London against the Mets was followed by dropping two out of three to the Red Sox and another series to Baltimore shortly after. They are just 10-10 in their last 20 games, with the lineup hitting just .231/.292/.370 over the past seven contests. Catcher J.T. Realmuto will miss significant time due to knee surgery. The indomitable starting pitching has started to appear mortal. On Sunday, in the sixth inning of an 8-3 loss to the Orioles, manager Rob Thomson had seen enough and blew his lid in a rare ejection. It felt like a fitting reaction to the past week. Within one of the rare wins last week, another star lost its shine for the Phillies. In Friday evening’s extra-inning victory over the Orioles, reliever Matt Strahm blew a save. Typically, this would be a rather banal stat line: Strahm is an unheralded middle reliever. He makes middling money, at $7.5 million a year, has seemingly middling stuff–his 4-seam fastball averages just 93.3mph–and he doesn’t close games. However, until he gave up a solo home run to Orioles right-fielder Anthony Santander in the 8th inning of Friday night’s game, Strahm hadn’t allowed an earned run since Opening Day. In 28.0 innings, Strahm has a 3-1 record, with a 0.96 ERA and 39 strikeouts. His presence in the bullpen has been everything to this team–while Strahm isn’t as likely to be called upon when the team needs a save, he’s the man you want when you need outs right away. As a middle reliever, Strahm is a long shot to make the All-Star team. It’s a shame because the pure number of saves a player has the chance to convert doesn’t equate to the value they hold to their team. And right now, Strahm might just be the most valuable reliever on one of the best teams in all of baseball. His immense value in the middle relief role, however, is what puts the spotlight on other arms in the team’s bullpen. Jeff Hoffman and Jose Alvarado are the team’s top dogs, flip-flopping between closer and setup man on a nightly basis, pumping high-nineties heat into the strike zone. Beyond them and Strahm, however, the role of a middle-innings reliever who can get quick outs and keep a game in check seems up for grabs.Take a look at how some of the past few losses have panned out. On Wednesday in Boston, Jose Ruiz filled in for starter Cristopher Sanchez in a 4-3 game in the bottom of the 5th inning. He let up two runs in an eventual 8-6 loss. On Saturday, in the 8th inning of a one-run game, Ruiz let up another 3 runs in an eventual blowout 6-2 loss.

This isn’t to pile on Jose Ruiz but rather to point out a hole in the bullpen: In “high-leverage” situations, who can the Phillies turn to to keep the game close?

Youngster Orion Kerkering, with his high-octane power and knee-buckling sweeper, seems destined for late-inning matchup hunting. Former All-Star Gregory Soto, who possesses the arsenal of a closer but lacks the command, has mainly been untrustworthy with a 4.57 ERA and a startling inability to get batters out. Longman Spencer Turnbull, “demoted” to the ‘pen after Taijuan Walker returned to the starting rotation, is talented but also has question marks of his own in the form of an innings limit that hangs over his head like a scarlet letter.This leaves 29-year-old Seranthony Dominguez, a hard-throwing righty, every bit as erratic as his fellow battery mates. Trying to find a stable solution in the Phillies’ pen is akin to cooking methamphetamine safely in your mobile home – with so many volatile arms, something is likely to explode. Dominguez, however, has been appearing relatively trustworthy as of late after starting off the year less than favorably. In his last 15 appearances, Dominguez has an ERA of just 0.63, with 13 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. While mainly being used in low-leverage situations, Dominguez was tasked with getting the tough save after a rain delay in the 11th inning on Friday night in Camden Yards and succeeded. Could he be the man the Phillies turn to opposite Strahm? 

The Phillies are a very good team, who for the first time in a long time, have not played very well. This streak isn’t necessarily indicative of a bigger drop-off or a call to push the panic button–after all, Trae Turner is set to return tonight against the Padres, and Brandon Marsh has just returned from injury as well.Instead, what a little bit of adversity does is allow us to look rationally at the Phillies. What isn’t working? What can be improved?

Amidst a very talented, very successful bullpen unit, one thing remains clear: the Phillies need another arm that they can trust, without hesitation, outside of the top three of Alvarado, Hoffman, and Strahm.
The only question is, who will rise to the occasion?


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