Good news for Orion Kerkering fans while another reliever struggles to find his way

The rookie will see more high-leverage spots while another once-dominant reliever struggles.
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Orion Kerkering will pitch in more high-leverage situations
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Orion Kerkering will pitch in more high-leverage situations / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages
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The Philadelphia Phillies have not had to rely much on the bullpen of late following some jaw-dropping performances from a starting rotation that's statistically ranked as one of the best in all of Major League Baseball. Opportunities have been few and far between for Phillies relief pitchers during the last two weeks of April, and that trend will certainly change at some point, but Phillies fans are more than happy with a rotation that has pitched the team to a 20-11 record to open the season.

The bullpen still has some question marks as we enter May. Manager Rob Thomson has stayed the course with his closer-by-committee arrangement. The team seems comfortable sending either Jeff Hoffman or José Alvarado to the mound in the ninth inning to lock down a save, although Alvarado has seen the most action in that role most recently. Have the Phillies quietly settled on a closer? We'll see.

While the bullpen has been mostly solid in limited opportunities, the ongoing struggles of Seranthony Domínguez in high-leverage situations are a cause for concern. Domínguez has had major issues securing big outs when called upon. His recent trend of hanging pitches has seen him give up three home runs in 10 1/3 innings. Overall, Domínguez is 1-2, with a bloated 9.58 ERA while allowing 11 runs (all earned) with 12 strikeouts and a 1.74 WHIP.

Domínguez was a nightmare on the mound in his one inning of work in Monday night's 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Angels. Coming in with the game tied 4-4 in the seventh, Domínguez allowed three hits, one walk, two earned runs and unleashed two wild pitches that allowed the game-winning run to cross the plate.

The once dominant right-hander looks lost on the mound right now, and it was a curious decision to have him out there in that game situation in the first place. Is Domínguez suffering a lack of confidence right now, or is it his mechanics? Maybe it's a little bit of both.

According to Alex Coffey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Domínguez is working hard to regain some movement on his slider, a pitch he has successfully paired in past seasons with his high-90s four-seam fastball. His work-in-progress slider, in addition to a sinker that opposing batters are currently hitting .556 against, will have to improve soon if the Phillies are going to trust him in high-leverage relief situations this season.

Orion Kerkering will get the ball in more high-leverage situations

While Domínguez continues to work on his secondary pitches, the Phillies are reportedly ready to give 23-year-old rookie reliever Orion Kerkering his first extended look in high-leverage situations late in the game.

According to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, Kerkering could see regular work as a bridge to Jeff Hoffman and José Alvarado in the seventh and eighth innings going forward.

"Orion Kerkering will start seeing more high-leverage opportunities, especially with Seranthony Domínguez struggling," writes Zolecki. "Domínguez is falling behind in the count too much. He entered Thursday with a career-low strike rate (60.7 percent). That’s a drop from 62.2 percent last season and a drop from 63.0 percent for his career. Domínguez is throwing first-pitch strikes only 45 percent of the time, down from his career average of 58.4 percent."

Making good on his promise, Thomson brought Kerkering in with no outs and two runners on in relief of Cristopher Sánchez in the sixth inning on Monday evening. The youngster allowed a hit and two unearned runs (both credited to Sánchez) while earning a blown save.

It was a tough spot for Kerkering to enter the game, but given Domínguez's recent struggles, it was a good opportunity to see what the talented rookie could do in that role. The results were a mixed bag, to say the least.

Kerkering's talent has never been in question, but how the talented power arm handles his newfound responsibility after making only eight MLB appearances since his call-up last September will be an interesting development to follow. Since coming off the IL on April 14, Kerkering has looked dominant in his 5 2/3 innings of work while not allowing a run and striking out four in those appearances.

It's a small sample size, but the results seem to have convinced the Phillies that they can trust Kerkering in a higher-leverage role going forward.

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