Phillies still no closer to figuring out ninth inning situation

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 20: Victor Arano #64 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch in the ninth inning during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park on June 20, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 4-3. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 20: Victor Arano #64 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch in the ninth inning during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park on June 20, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 4-3. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images) /
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The Phillies showed this week against the Cardinals that they are still no closer to figuring out what to do in the ninth inning.

The Phillies are heating up again after three straight series wins and seven wins in their last 10 games. Considering the rough patch they were in prior to this stretch, the team is far more entertaining to watch.

However, one issue remains prevalent despite the wins: the ninth inning. This is an issue that has plagued the team for most of the season. In each game of the Cardinals series as well as others in the Rockies and Brewers series, Philadelphia either blew or almost blew a lead in the ninth inning.

Last Tuesday against the Rockies, Luis Garcia entered the ninth with a comfortable four-run lead. Four singles and no outs later, Colorado had the go-ahead run at the plate. Seranthony Dominguez, the team’s unofficial closer, had to come in two days after 41 pitches to record the save.

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Then Sunday against the Brewers, Hector Neris had a five-run lead to work with. He gave up a first-pitch home run and a three-run shot later, closing the game to one. Neris had already been relegated from the closer role after several blown saves earlier this season. His outing Sunday led to him being sent back to Triple-A for the first time since 2015.

The ninth inning was a nail-biter in all three games of the Cardinals series this week. The Phils were riding a two-run lead into the ninth Monday as Gabe Kapler decided to call on Victor Arano to pitch. He gave up two hits but struck out three batters, seemingly ending the game. However, Andrew Knapp let the third strike go between his legs, allowing the runner on third to score.

Adam Morgan then gave up the game-tying hit, and Jake Thompson gave up a solo home run in the top of the 10th. It was only thanks to Aaron Altherr and Marcell Ozuna failing to come up with a diving catch that they were able to win.

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Tuesday night we learned that Dominguez won’t always be a shutdown reliever. He gave up his first major-league home run to Matt Carpenter on a 0-2 count after striking out two batters. It was the decisive blow in the 7-6 loss.

Wednesday afternoon, Arano was again tasked with securing the win and earning his first major-league save. He got one out but then allowed a double, so Kapler brought Morgan back.

Thankfully this game didn’t end the same way as Morgan retired the final two batters for his own first career save.

Since Neris was demoted from the closer, Kapler has been using a “closer-by-committee” approach to the ninth inning. He selects who pitches in the ninth based on who he feels will match up the best against the opposing hitters. This approach hasn’t been too successful as the team has the fifth-highest ERA (4.89) and third-highest WHIP (1.46) in the ninth inning in the league.

Many fans have implored Kapler to simply name Dominguez the closer and end this committee approach. While that would make the ninth better, it would hamstring the team in other innings where they need a higher-caliber reliever. The whole reason Brad Lidge could be the full-time closer back in 2008 was that he had Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, and other strong relievers pitching ahead of him. The reason Kapler can’t just make Dominguez the closer is that there isn’t anyone trustworthy enough to put in front of him.

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The ninth inning remains a struggle for the Phillies even when they are actually winning games. When the offense can’t support their struggles, we have seen what kind of rut they get into. Right now there is no easy answer; all we can hope for is that whoever pitches in the ninth inning is able to keep the game as it is.

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