Reliever Evan Phillips ‘wasn’t quite ready’ for the Orioles’ land of opportunity. He’s seized it with the Dodgers.

19 July 2023

Evan Phillips walked into the manager’s office at Triple-A Norfolk’s Harbor Park in the summer of 2021, knowing one of two outcomes awaited him.

He allowed himself to be hopeful, to think that his boyhood team, the Orioles, needed him again and he was getting called back up. Phillips’ numbers with Norfolk weren’t ideal, but he felt he had thrown better of late and believed he could contribute something to a team heading to the bottom of the major league standings for the second time in four years.

Instead, that early August meeting was to inform Phillips of his release, his time with Baltimore ending just after his three-year anniversary of joining the organization he had rooted for since being born on the Eastern Shore.

Nearly two years later, he’s made it back to Camden Yards, returning this week as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ closer and one of the best relievers in baseball.

“Baltimore will always be special to me,” Phillips said from the visitors’ clubhouse. “Coming back to the stadium I used to watch games with my dad at, seeing some of my favorite players, playing in this ballpark is what’s special. Competing against the guys I came up with and struggled through that rebuild with, I think it’s really great to see them reaping the benefits and coming out of that and playing on such a great team. That’s the kind of thing that means a lot to me. I think outside of that, it’s just another game for me.”

Since his release, Phillips, a 28-year-old right-hander, has a 1.82 ERA, the second lowest among the 125 pitchers who have as many appearances as his 111 across the past three seasons. In parts of three campaigns with Baltimore, he had a 7.36 ERA.

Phillips is a relative rarity among the passersby of the Orioles’ rebuild, which chewed up and spit out pitchers on teams that John Means, a Baltimore left-hander and a groomsman in Phillips’ wedding, said were “built to lose.” From 2018 to 2021, 47 pitchers took the mound for the Orioles but threw fewer than 50 innings with them. That was the only big league time for 10 members of that group. Including Phillips, only one more than that has pitched in the majors in 2023, with Mike Baumann the only of the 11 to do so with Baltimore.

Those rebuilding Orioles gave many players chances to be in the majors they likely would not have received elsewhere, operating as a land of opportunity. Phillips said he received his fair share of them but wasn’t mature enough as a pitcher to take advantage.

“I don’t necessarily think I was ready,” he said. “I think the Orioles probably felt like they were forced at some times to give me looks because they just didn’t have a ton of options.

“I was struggling to find myself as a pitcher. I felt like there was so much more for me to do to have success at this level, and I was just constantly fighting myself and really drove myself crazy over it. But the Orioles definitely gave me as many looks as they could, and there were a handful of times where I felt like, ‘OK, I’ve done it, I feel like I’m finally settled.’ And then it would revert back and I’d struggle again.”

Phillips was one of four players Baltimore acquired from the Atlanta Braves for Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day amid their July 2018 sell-off that ended an era of success that Phillips said featured many of his favorite Orioles, with Cal Ripken Jr. an exception. A 17th-round draft pick in 2015, he received his first taste of the majors with four games pitched for Atlanta in the month before the swap, then five more after with Baltimore. Across stops, he allowed multiple runs in six appearances.

In 44 sporadic outings with the Orioles, Phillips struck out 65 batters but walked 36. When he was released in 2021, he had a 5.04 ERA in Triple-A and hadn’t appeared for an Orioles team with the American League’s highest ERA.

“Having to deal with that mental thought process was extremely hard,” Phillips said. “Early in the year, I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I was like, ‘All right, they’ve put me on the back burner, they’re really starting to shove other guys in that spot and give them a more consistent look.’ And I was very understanding of that, so I was in Triple-A, doing everything I could on my end to continue to get better.”

An AL East rival noticed. The Tampa Bay Rays, regarded as one of the best pitching development teams in the sport, signed Phillips to a minor league deal days after the Orioles let him go. When a need on their major league roster appeared soon after, the Rays brought Phillips up for one appearance, in which he allowed a run over three innings, then designated him for assignment.

But in his short time with Tampa Bay, the organization emphasized that Phillips increase usage of his sweeping slider. After the Dodgers claimed him on waivers, they did the same.

For much of his amateur and minor league career, Phillips struggled to throw a slider with much movement, saying his version of the pitch “wasn’t anything relevant that I could use in the major leagues.” But in 2019, a grip change suggested by Chris Holt, then the Orioles’ minor league pitching coordinator and now their major league pitching coach and director of pitching, increased its break from the first time Phillips played catch, much to his surprise.

But the new pitch didn’t make him a new pitcher. Throughout the rest of his time with the Orioles, Phillips still relied heavily on his four-seam fastball and still struggled to put all of his offerings in the strike zone.

“I was kind of scared to be in the major leagues,” he acknowledged. “I realized that, ‘OK, these guys are really good. Maybe I’m a step behind,’ and in my head, when I felt like I was a step behind, I thought I had to add, and the reality is probably that wasn’t the right way to go about it. But I don’t think there’s much else I could have done to have success at that point.

“I really genuinely believe I wasn’t quite ready to be a major league player.”

But in 2021, he found a new mindset. He had gotten married the previous offseason, which helped him “separate my life a little bit and not be so caught up in the success and failures of baseball.” He became devoted to throwing strikes, desperate to stop issuing walks even if it meant surrendering home runs. He gave up four long balls in a three-outing span for Norfolk in mid-July, but the last began a season-high run of four straight walk-free appearances. He was released days after.

His new teams reinforced the approach, pushing for the sweeper to be a pitch that lived in the strike zone. In catch play, bullpens and even games, he would “try like hell to throw as many sliders for strikes as I could,” knowing consistency would come with repetition.

“You’ll ask Clayton Kershaw how long he’s thrown his curveball, he’s gonna tell you since he was 9,” Phillips said, referring to the Dodgers’ three-time Cy Young Award winner.

Now, Phillips said, he can command the sweeper “like a fastball.” The pitch has been his most used each of the past three years, holding opposing hitters to a .144 average and .234 slugging percentage. Its 40.5% whiff rate is the second highest for any sweeping slider that has induced at least 300 swings in that span. And it was Holt who taught him the grip.

“It’s his fault,” Phillips said with a laugh.

But Holt isn’t the only person from Phillips’ time with Orioles who he said deserves credit for the pitcher he is now. He listed off a collection of other relievers who cycled through Baltimore during the rebuild, his shared experiences with Branden Kline, Thomas Eshelman, Jay Flaa, Tanner Scott and Paul Fry helping him endure those times because he knew they were going through it together. Of that group, only Scott has pitched in the majors this year, coming to Camden Yards over the weekend with the Miami Marlins.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Phillips said. “I’m very appreciative of my time where I stuck with it because there was multiple situations where I could have felt bad for myself and given up and just said, ‘Oh well, this is who I am. I guess I’m not good enough.’ I think I always pursued more. I always wanted to get better.”

He did, and so did the Orioles, with Baltimore retaining the majors’ third-best record despite dropping the first two games of its series with Los Angeles. Phillips pitched in neither, unavailable Monday after appearing twice over the weekend and unneeded in the Dodgers’ blowout win Tuesday. But the Salisbury native has treasured his return, regardless, with this East Coast swing being the Dodgers’ family trip, meaning Phillips’ wife, Elizabeth, and 3-month-old son, Beau, came along. With Beau born out west during the season, Phillips spent Monday morning introducing his son to his parents and other family members on this side of the country.

He’s also gotten the chance to reconnect with former teammates. He remains close with Means and right-hander Dean Kremer and played with many other members of Baltimore’s current team. Even though he’s not part of it, he’s glad to see that the rebuild panned out.

“I couldn’t be more happy for them,” he said. “Those painful years, they weren’t fun, and I think honestly, I feel best for [manager] Brandon Hyde because no one hated losing more than that guy. I think for him to last through this rebuild and get on the other side of it and see the success that this team and some of those pieces from those years are having probably means a lot to him.”

With the Orioles’ most glaring need as the trade deadline approaches being another key relief arm or two to join All-Stars Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano, it’s fair to wonder whether Phillips could have been this same pitcher had he simply gotten another chance to pitch for Baltimore, if his hopes of a call-up as he approached the manager’s office two years ago had come to fruition. Means believes so, but to Phillips, the undesired outcome is what brought him here.

“Frankly, I think I needed to understand the other side of the page,” he said. “I needed that rock bottom of getting released and then the reality check of, ‘Hey, this is what the Dodgers and Rays are showing me, that you need to throw your slider. This is your only option.’ And that was my first sink-or-swim moment where if I can’t do this, I’m probably not going to pitch in the major leagues ever again. Without me getting released by Baltimore, I don’t think I’m in this spot.

“Just a couple more opportunities, I feel like maybe that’s all I needed.”

Dodgers at Orioles

Wednesday, 1:05 p.m.

TV: MLB Network (out of market only), MASN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Orioles at Rays

Thursday, 6:40 p.m.

TV: MLB Network (out of market only), MASN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM


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