TORONTO — In June, after his fourth of what became eight promotions to the Orioles in 2019, Evan Phillips admitted to being nervous in the majors.
At Triple-A Norfolk, the right-handed reliever felt “comfortable,” like he could “let [his] shoulders hang,” but those feelings escaped him in the big leagues. That was reflected in his season stat line, with an 8.84 ERA and 17 walks in 19 1/3 innings through August. Each of his rides on the so-called Norfolk shuttle did little to improve his psyche.
“At the beginning of the year, when I was getting sent down, I was always going down and working on something new, what I needed to change, instead of just what I needed to improve,” Phillips said.
But in his final eight relief appearances with the Tides, he allowed only one run in 14 1/3 innings, an ERA of 0.63. He’s carried that success into September with the Orioles. In six appearances in the majors this month, Phillips has pitched seven scoreless innings, striking out 10 and walking three.
Both Phillips, 25, and manager Brandon Hyde emphasized command as the determining factor in his success, with Phillips pointing in particular to his off-speed pitches. As he did in his previous major league stints this year, Phillips is throwing his fastball in the strike zone at least half the time, per Statcast, but he’s putting his secondary pitches in the zone far more often. In September, he’s thrown his changeup in the zone twice as often as he did during his previous call-ups, and has thrown his slider for a strike 20% more often as well.
He’s improved with an effort to duplicate the mindset he carried in Norfolk.
“I am trying to let my shoulders hang, but it’s more along the lines of treating every day the same,” Phillips said. “My work doesn’t change whether it’s in Norfolk or whether it’s in Baltimore or who I’m playing catch with or who the batter is or who I’m throwing to, whatever it might be.
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“As soon as I grab the ball out there on the mound, it doesn’t matter where I am. I could be in Low-A, the big leagues, it’s gonna be the same mindset because I’m trying to improve what I can do as a pitcher. I’m trying to eliminate noticing a difference.”
Phillips is thus far the only major leaguer among the four players the Orioles acquired in last year’s trade that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to the Atlanta Braves. He did not allow a run in spring training but didn’t break camp with the club. It didn’t take long before he was up in the majors, and from then on, it didn’t take long before he was down in the minors again.
He said there is “a sense of a safety net” in September, with expanded rosters and the end of the minor league season basically guaranteeing he’s not going anywhere. But he believes avoiding such thoughts is part of what’s led to his September success.
“It kind of stinks to have to think about that during the year,” Phillips said. “But I really don’t try to let that thought creep into my mind, so in August and September, I’ve really done a good job about solely being focused on what I can do out there on the mound.”
Hyde turned to Phillips in Monday’s series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays to steady the game after starter Chandler Shepherd lasted only three innings. Phillips retired the first six Blue Jays he faced before a walk to start his third inning ended his outing.
“Evan Phillips is all strikes. It’s all about eliminating walks,” Hyde said. “With him, it’s just all his command. I don’t know if when he gets here, he tries too hard or he tries to be too careful or what it may be, but you just can’t walk guys at the rate he does and expect to have success when you have traffic on the bases all the time.
“If you look at Evan’s numbers, it’s not just the hits per inning but it’s the walks, and if he eliminates those, his numbers go way down, and he’s going to start having some success.”