Evan Phillips: From Castoff to Dodgers Closer

Evan Phillips yelling in triumph after closing out a game against the Boston Red Sox.

Dodgers Closer Evan Phillips: Another Diamond in the Rough

In recent years, the Los Angeles Dodgers have found some castoffs with potential, worked them through their system, and turned them into key players. Two of the most successful examples are Max Muncy and the now-departed Justin Turner. Both made two All-Star teams and were on the 2020 World Series Champion squad. In addition, Turner notched 2017 NLCS MVP honors for leading the Dodgers to their first NL Pennant in 29 years. In 2022, another player rescued from the scrap heap gained a key role on the team — reliever Evan Phillips. His success continued into 2023, leading manager Dave Roberts to name him the full-time closer.

The Journey Begins

Evan Phillips began his professional baseball journey when the Atlanta Braves selected him in the 17th round of the 2015 draft. A product of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Phillips spent parts of four seasons in the minors before making his major league debut with the Braves on July 3, 2018. It was 2 1/3 innings of mop-up duty against the New York Yankees. Phillips held them scoreless until the second-to-last batter he faced, Giancarlo Stanton, belted a two-run homer down the right-field line. His second game was also mop-up duty, this time against the eventual NL runners up, the Milwaukee Brewers. Two more homers — a solo shot by Eric Thames and a three-run clout by Jesus Aguilar — spoiled his 1 1/3-inning outing. His next two appearances were scoreless, but in those four appearances, he coughed up six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings.

His last appearance as a Brave came on July 26, because he ended up being part of a Deadline Day deal. The Braves sent him to the team he grew up rooting for — the Baltimore Orioles — along with three other prospects in exchange for Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day. He made 44 appearances for the Orioles between 2018 and 2020, allowing 39 earned runs in 47 2/3 innings. His ERA was 7.36, while his WHIP was 1.867. (Keep in mind that the league averages for WHIP every year are in the 1.300s.) He never pitched for the Orioles again, spending 2021 in Triple-A before the Orioles released him on August 2.

Evan Phillips Finds a Home

Two days later, Phillips signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. He finished up a blowout victory for the Rays on August 13 against the Minnesota Twins. He allowed one run (a homer) on three hits across three innings. Because he pitched the final three innings of a victory, he earned his first career save in that game.

But that was his only appearance with the Rays. The Rays designated him for assignment the very next day, August 14. Two days later, the Dodgers claimed him off waivers. He made seven appearances for the Dodgers down the stretch. In the postseason, he pitched two games for the Dodgers in the NLCS against the eventual-champion Braves.

In 2022, with closer Kenley Jansen gone, Phillips was among the pool of players manager Dave Roberts used for late-inning matchups. Phillips took advantage of the opportunities the Dodgers gave him, making a total of 64 appearances. Of those 64 appearances, 57 were scoreless, an NL-leading 89.1% Scoreless Outing Percentage (minimum 30 appearances). In 2023, Phillips once again began the season as one of the “high-leverage” relievers as Roberts specifically would not name a “closer.” His usage varied, at least as far as which inning he entered, through April and May.

The New Dodgers Closer

Roberts told Sport Relay in an August 9 interview in Phoenix that what stands out to him about Phillips is his professionalism. He specifically noted Phillips’ preparation, care for his teammates, and “willingness to pitch in whatever role we ask.” That role changed in mid-June, when Phillips became the closer — at least by practice — before Roberts finally acknowledged his capturing of that role on July 29.

To Phillips, earning enough trust from Roberts to become the closer — “where the last three outs of the game mean winning the game” — brought a change in mindset. But it also meant continuing to do what got him there. When he came to the Dodgers, “early on” he learned their philosophy that “every single out is important.” He explained on August 9, “If our goal is to ultimately win the World Series, piling up wins, piling up outs out of the bullpen is very important.”

“I Gotta Trust What I Am”

Being on the mound when the game is on the line gives him the chance to pile up the outs and end the game, something he said “feels really good.” But outside of that feeling as well as the feelings of trust from the managers, coaches, and teammates, he tries not to add to it. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I just gotta do my job. I gotta trust what I am and trust who I am as a pitcher to get those three outs at the end of the game.”

Trusting who he is — staying within himself and not trying to do too much — is “definitely a challenge,” Phillips said. “If you look at some of my worst games of the season, it’s from me doing too much” and “trying to be more than who I am.” Trying not to overdo it is a daily challenge. It’s a hard thing to find that “consistent faith in yourself to go out there and be yourself,” he confessed. But he tries to eliminate all the “outside noise” by treating each pitch and each batter individually.

“A Challenging Moment”

The night before this interview, Phillips entered the game with a 5–2 lead in the ninth. With one out and Geraldo Perdomo on first, Diamondbacks pinch-hitter Alek Thomas ripped a triple to the right-field corner and scored on a single from Ketel Marte. In a span of four pitches, Phillips went from having a three-run lead to having a one-run lead with the tying run on first and the ever-dangerous Corbin Carroll representing the winning run at bat. Phillips called that situation a “challenging moment” but also remembered that his job was to do his best to finish the game. “Having that pitch-by-pitch process allowed me to do so,” he said.

Carroll ultimately hit a slow chopper near the first-base line. Thinking it was foul, he didn’t run initially. It was only when first baseman Freddie Freeman alertly snatched the ball while it was still fair that Carroll tried to run it out, but before he even made it halfway down the line, the Dodgers had turned a game-ending 3–6–3 double play.

Help from Every Turn for Evan Phillips

Phillips has had help at every turn since joining the Dodgers. On the Carroll play, he had help from dependable and alert defense. “Everyone talks about our hitters and our lineup,” Phillips smiled. “But to have the defensive versatility that we do — Gold Glove at first base, plenty of gold around the field… Having those guys that we can rely on to make those plays for us when we need them? You can’t beat that.”

“It’s Our Job to Execute”

His defense gives him help while he’s on the mound. But when it comes to his development as a pitcher, it has come from his manager, the coaching staff, and his teammates.

“All of our pitching guys, even Doc, my bullpen guys, my teammates. I think we try to lift each other up. We try to support each other the best we can. And I was actually just having a conversation with one of our other (relievers), Alex Vesia, about just how valuable every single out is out of the bullpen. With this team, with this lineup, our guys are able to score at any given moment. So if we’re losing and we seemingly are out of the game, if we can collect those outs out of the bullpen and give our guys a chance at the plate, I think it’s hugely important.

“And on the flip side of things, if we have a lead, those outs should be just as important. I’m sure those feel a bit more important. But I think it can be easy sometimes to let off the gas when you have a bigger lead or have a deficit. So for us as a bullpen, collectively, piling up those outs and trying to get wins is hugely important. And then our staff, (pitching coach) Mark Prior and (bench coach) Danny Lehmann do a lot on the game-planning side. Bullpen coach Josh Bard and assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness do a tremendous job with giving us every single tool to believe in ourselves each day. They put in a ton of hours and a ton of work for us to give us a recipe for success. And simply put, it’s our job to execute at the end of the day.”

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Evan M. Thompson, Editor-in-chief

Evan M. Thompson, Editor-in-chief

Evan is the owner and sole contributor of Thompson Talks, a website discussing the Big Four North American Pro Sports as well as soccer. He also is a credentialed member of the Colorado Rockies press corps. His first and biggest love is baseball.

Evan lives in Gilbert, Arizona and loves history, especially of sports. He is the treasurer for the Hemond Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and also is a USSF and AIA soccer referee. He released his first book, Volume I of A Complete History of the Major League Baseball Playoffs, in October of 2021.

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