Evan can’t wait: Why Evan Phillips’ de facto closer role is burning the Dodgers

Evan Phillips pitches for the Dodgers.
Dodgers relief pitcher Evan Phillips delivers against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 6. Phillips’ new role this season is revealing some of the Dodgers’ bullpen depth issues.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The problem with the Dodgers bullpen right now is there is not enough of Evan Phillips to go around.

Phillips was the ultimate fireman in 2022, a right-handed weapon that manager Dave Roberts deployed from the sixth through eighth innings to douse fires or mute the middle of an opposing lineup while leaving the final inning or two to closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Daniel Hudson before Hudson’s season-ending knee injury in June.

But with Phillips serving as the de facto closer this season, Roberts has had to lean on a cadre of late-inning relievers who, for the most part, have not been nearly as effective or as reliable as Phillips was last season, when he went 7-3 with a 1.14 ERA in 64 games, striking out 77 and walking 15 in 63 innings.


The team’s lack of bullpen depth was exposed again in the decisive seventh inning of Monday night’s 8-6 loss to the New York Mets, when left-hander Alex Vesia and right-hander Phil Bickford combined to give up three runs and four hits to turn a one-run lead into a two-run deficit.

This would have been a prime spot for Phillips last season, but with Roberts saving Phillips for the ninth inning and right-hander Brusdar Graterol and left-hander Caleb Ferguson, who have pitched well of late, unavailable because of recent use, the manager’s options were limited.

“I think there’s always going to be a spot for a guy like Evan, but you can’t fire that bullet every night,” Roberts said. “I felt good with Alex going there and taking down one or two outs, potentially with three hitters, and having Phil behind him, but it didn’t work out.”

Vesia, who has a 12.60 ERA in seven games, actually entered in the sixth to face the left-handed-hitting Daniel Vogelbach with a runner on second base, two outs and the score tied 5-5.

Mets manager Buck Showalter sent the right-handed-hitting Tommy Pham up to bat for Vogelbach. Roberts intentionally walked Pham to put two on for the left-handed-hitting Brett Baty, the Mets’ highly touted third-base prospect who was called up from triple-A on Sunday. Vesia struck out Baty with a 94-mph fastball to end the inning.

Umpire Mark Ripperger talks with Dodgers players.
Home plate umpire Mark Ripperger talks with Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford after calling a balk on him as catcher Austin Wynns, left, and third baseman Max Muncy listen during the seventh inning Monday. The bases-loaded balk brought in a run during the Mets’ 8-6 win over the Dodgers.
(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Max Muncy gave the Dodgers a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the sixth with a towering 433-foot solo home run to right-center field, the third baseman’s sixth homer in seven games, but Roberts tried to squeeze one too many outs from Vesia.

Mets catcher Tomas Nido opened the seventh with a single to left, and leadoff man Brandon Nimmo dribbled a slow roller to third for a single. Roberts let Vesia pitch to the right-handed-hitting Starling Marte, who lined a single to left field to load the bases with no outs.

Roberts then summoned Bickford, who balked the tying run home before his first pitch to Francisco Lindor. A lengthy argument from Roberts did not change home-plate umpire Mark Ripperger’s call, which was based on Bickford coming to a set position and wiggling his left leg before starting his delivery.

Lindor drove in a run with a grounder to first base for a 7-6 Mets lead, and Pete Alonso lined an RBI single to left to make it 8-6.

“I looked back at the video, and he did balk,” Roberts said of Bickford. “It’s a double set that he’s always doing. I didn’t see it, but it was more egregious than it normally is. So Mark got it right. But [Bickford] also left a slider middle-middle to one of the best hitters in baseball. You know Alonzo is going to hit it hard, and that’s what he did.”

The Dodgers muster six runs in three games against the Cubs, culminating in a 3-2 loss Sunday that also marked the first loss of the season for Julio Urías.

April 16, 2023

Roberts said if he knew the Mets would load the bases with no outs and Phillips was warm, he would have summoned Phillips, “but I’m not going into that inning expecting the bases to be loaded with nobody out,” Roberts said.


“And to be quite honest, I like Vesia to go back out there and get the No. 9 hitter and the lefty [Nimmo]. I didn’t expect three straight hits.”

Another shaky night of relief pitching dropped the Dodgers’ bullpen ERA to 4.97, which ranks 24th in baseball. The Dodgers ranked second with a bullpen ERA of 2.87 last season. Nights like Monday, when the Dodgers did not use their best reliever in the final three innings of such a close game, only add to the frustration.

“If we were to do it over again, I think Phil’s still a good guy to go with in that situation,” Roberts said. “I think what he does well plays well against that group of hitters, and that’s how we sequence guys in our pen. Not getting it done tonight isn’t going to dictate what we do as a group moving forward, but certainly, it stings a little bit.”