Dodgers notes: Evan Phillips' return is 'pretty exciting' development for bullpen

Los Angeles, CA, Saturday, June 1, 2024 - Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Evan Phillips (59) celebrates with catcher Will Smith after closing out a 4-1 win over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Managing a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Saturday night was like sitting in the back seat of a self-driving car for Dodgers field boss Dave Roberts.

Right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto delivered a quality start, giving up one run and seven hits in six innings and turning the game over to the bullpen with a three-run lead.

With his three highest-leverage relievers available, Roberts used Daniel Hudson in the seventh inning, Blake Treinen in the eighth and closer Evan Phillips in the ninth, a clockwork-like strategy that Roberts had been able to deploy … like, never, this season.

Phillips had an 0.66 ERA and converted all eight of his save opportunities in his first 14 games before going on the injured list because of a right hamstring strain on May 5, the same day that Treinen, who missed most of 2022 and 2023 because of shoulder injuries and was slowed this spring by fractured ribs, made his 2024 Dodgers debut.

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Hudson, who also missed most of 2022 and 2023 because of surgeries on both knees, has been a back-of-the-bullpen mainstay all season, with a 2-1 record, 2.35 ERA and three saves in 23 games entering Tuesday’s game at Pittsburgh, and Treinen has not allowed an earned run in 9⅔ innings of his first 10 games.

But Saturday night marked the first time this season that all three right-handers pitched in the same game, a luxury Roberts likened to receiving a Christmas gift.

“To go to Hudson, Treinen and Evan was pretty exciting for me,” Roberts said. “Treinen and Huddy have been so good for us — for them to come off injury last year and be inserted into their normal roles and thrive has been great. And to have Evan back and do what he did, it certainly makes you feel good about the back end of the game.”

The return of Phillips, who struck out one of three batters in a clean ninth inning Saturday night, should solidify the back end of the bullpen.

“Now we know that every time we get a lead in the ninth inning,” outfielder Teoscar Hernández said, “it’s close to 100% that we’re gonna win the game.”

But even with Phillips, the relief corps remains far from whole. Right-hander Brusdar Graterol, who went 4-2 with a 1.20 ERA in 68 games in 2023, has been sidelined all season because of shoulder inflammation and has not even resumed throwing.

And right-handers Ryan Brasier, who had a 4.63 ERA in 12 games before suffering a right calf strain in late April, and Joe Kelly, who had a 1.69 ERA in 10⅔ innings of his previous 12 games before going on the injured list because of a shoulder strain in early May, are weeks away from returning.

“I think when our entire staff is healthy, we’re going to be in a great position to win,” Phillips said. “We still have a lot of major pieces missing. We’re waiting for Joe Kelly and Ryan Brasier … to picture that bullpen when the time comes will be a lot of fun.

“We’ll see when that time is, but some of the new guys that have been here the last couple of weeks have picked up some of the slack and have been really impressive.”

Sho stopper

Shohei Ohtani looked like a leading National League most valuable player candidate in mid-May, the slugger batting .364 with a 1.108 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 12 homers, 16 doubles, 30 RBIs, 34 runs, 38 strikeouts and 22 walks in his first 43 games.

But Ohtani has been in an extended slump since then, batting .193 (11 for 57) with a .621 OPS, two homers, one double, eight RBIs, seven runs, 15 strikeouts and five walks in his last 15 games, dropping his average to .322 and OPS to .988 entering Tuesday.

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Ohtani had two hits, including a two-run homer, and three RBIs in the first game of a doubleheader sweep of the Mets in New York last Tuesday, but he had a quiet weekend against the Rockies, going one for nine with four strikeouts, three walks and a stolen base in three games.

Ohtani suffered a right hamstring bruise when he was hit by a pickoff throw from Reds left-hander Brent Suter on May 16. Roberts believes there is a correlation between that injury and Ohtani’s recent struggles.

“His words, he doesn't feel it when he's swinging the bat,” Roberts said. “But he’s a finely tuned machine, and sometimes, in the context of a sports car, when it's not firing on all cylinders, it just doesn't run right.

“When his back was bothering him a little bit [in early May] you saw some funkier swings, a little bit more chase. His hamstring is bothering him a little bit, you see a little bit of the same thing. But I think that he's getting close to where he needs to be physically. I think that staying to the big part of the field is a remedy.”

Second to none

Miguel Rojas has made only eight of his 36 starts this season at second base, a position he has made 39 starts at during his 11-year career, but the veteran utility man who was the team’s regular shortstop in 2023 has made a quick study of the position.

Rojas teamed with third baseman Kiké Hernández to turn two slick double plays in Sunday’s 4-0 win over the Rockies, the first with a lightning-quick glove-to-hand transfer on Brandan Rodgers’ sixth-inning grounder to Hernández’s left and the second on Kris Bryant’s one-hopper right at Hernández to end the game.

“When you’re really watching the game and valuing outs and the usage of pitchers, you know that Kiké cutting off Mookie [Betts, the shortstop] to get that ball [from Rodgers] and Miggy Ro turning the double play was huge,” Roberts said.

“And the last one, Miggy makes a good play turning it and Freddie [Freeman] stays on the [first-base] bag … I mean, those are plays that change games and allow me to keep guys fresh and save arms, too.”

Rojas has played only 71 innings at second base but has already accumulated two defensive runs saved there, according to Fangraphs, which would rank him seventh among qualifying major league second basemen.

“It's a little bit of adjustment for me because I haven't played second base in a while, so I’m getting that [internal] clock back,” Rojas said. “When I know a runner can fly, I do my best to throw the ball as fast as I can. It doesn't matter if it's not a perfect throw, because I know if I get it there, Freddie will do a good job of getting it.

“But I know like the last one Kris Bryant hit, I have all the time in the world, so I can make sure that I catch the ball and make a better throw to first.”

High bar for Buehler

Walker Buehler seemed relatively patient with his inability to recapture his dominant 2019-2021 form immediately after returning from a second Tommy John surgery and a near 23-month-long absence in early May.

“I’m not freaked out — I’m actually pretty encouraged by a lot of the things I’ve done,” Buehler said after giving up three runs and five hits in 3⅓ innings of a 4-0 loss to San Diego in his second start on May 12. “I’m kind of giving myself a little grace for a few more starts, and then after that, that kind of ‘happy to be here’ thing will go away.”

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That grace period clearly ended Friday night after Buehler gave up four runs — three earned — and six hits, struck out seven and walked four in six innings of a 4-1 loss to the Rockies, dropping the right-hander to 1-3 with a 4.32 ERA in five starts in which he’s struck out 24, walked seven and been tagged for six homers in 25 innings.

Asked to assess his overall performance, Buehler said he “feels like [crap]” and is “not anywhere close to where I want to be … it’s kind of put-up or shut-up time for me.” Roberts felt the ultra-demanding Buehler was being a little too hard on himself.

“I guess that’s how you want it, but there is a balance of managing expectations, and I think that’s where [pitching coach] Mark Prior and I come into play,” Roberts said. “Individually, he's gonna expect the best of himself, but for me, for our organization to sort of temper [expectations] and know that this is still a process is important.

“I think Walker can take something positive out of each outing. A year ago today, he was at home in Kentucky watching his teammates, so there's been a world of change since then, and he's put in a lot of work [to get here] so we can't lose that perspective.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.