A liability no more, ‘pen has pushed Phils to NLCS

PHILADELPHIA — Dramatic moments call for dramatic music.

Seranthony Domínguez’s wife, Sarahi, knows this. Her husband became the Phillies’ most trusted reliever earlier this season. Phils manager Rob Thomson never named him the closer, but Domínguez appeared regularly in the game’s biggest moments. Los Dos Carnales’ “Mis Raíces” played every time Domínguez left the bullpen at Citizens Bank Park. It is a popular song about being proud of your roots from the Mexican band, but when he exited the bullpen for the ninth inning Saturday in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, the “Game of Thrones” theme played instead.

• NLCS Game 1, presented by loanDepot: Tonight, 8 p.m. ET on FS1

“She said we needed a new vibe,” Domínguez later said, smiling, as champagne and beer dripped from his face.

The Phillies’ vibe is pretty good right now. So is their bullpen. It punched the team’s ticket to the NL Championship Series for the first time since 2010 with a huge effort in the Game 4 clincher. Noah Syndergaard started for the first time since Oct. 1. He allowed one run over three innings. Andrew Bellatti, Brad Hand, José Alvarado, Zach Eflin and Domínguez allowed two runs the rest of the way.

Combined, the six pitchers struck out 15 and walked none over six innings.

“It’s like Alvarado said: Strike one, strike two and good luck,” Domínguez said.

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Alvarado uttered those words following the Phillies’ victory over the Braves in Game 1 in Atlanta.

It turned into a T-shirt that relievers wore the rest of the series.

Everything is a thing right now, isn’t it? Every pitch, every song, every postgame quote.

The Phillies’ bullpen is a thing, too. It had been such a source of frustration for years. It cost people jobs as the franchise’s postseason drought extended to 11 years. The bullpen had a 7.06 ERA in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which was the second-highest bullpen ERA in the Major Leagues in 90 years. The ‘pen tied what was then an MLB record with 34 blown saves in ’21. Epic meltdowns became commonplace. This year, it blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning in a crushing loss to the Mets on May 5. It was the first time the Phils blew a six-run lead in the ninth since 1994. It was only the second time it happened since 1937.

So many late-inning losses felt like that one.

The Phillies had been talking for days about their pitching plans for Game 4 of the NLDS. Ranger Suárez, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola pitched the first three games of the series. The Phils had Syndergaard, Bailey Falter and Kyle Gibson as options. They chose Syndergaard because he was throwing well, and because righties fared better against Atlanta than lefties.

They thought Syndergaard could get through the lineup once, which is exactly what he did. They would mix and match the bullpen the rest of the way.

It worked.

“Everybody pitched well,” Thomson said. “I mean, you can have the greatest plan in the world, but if somebody doesn’t pitch well, then it goes out the window.”

There are reasons to be optimistic about the bullpen heading into the NLCS against the Padres. Domínguez lost his command after he returned from the injured list Sept. 11, but he could not be pitching any better than he is right now. The command and velocity are back. Domínguez’s fastballs averaged 99.5 mph in the ninth inning in Game 4. He struck out Dansby Swanson swinging on a 99.4 mph four-seam fastball for the first out. He struck out Matt Olson swinging on a 100.5 mph sinker for the second out. Domínguez struck out Travis d’Arnaud swinging on a 99.7 mph sinker to end it.

Four of Domínguez’s 12 hardest pitches of the season came in that inning.

“I’m back,” Domínguez said. “I’m definitely back.”

Alvarado got optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on May 27. He has a 2.09 ERA in 47 appearances since his return on June 12, including the postseason. Alvarado has struck out 69 and walked 16 in 43 innings.

“He’s one of the best relievers in the world right now,” Domínguez said.

Alvarado is feeling it, too. He walked off the mound with two outs in the seventh inning, raised his arms over his head and waved to the crowd.

“It’s not easy to beat Atlanta,” he said.

Domínguez, Eflin, Alvarado, Hand, Bellatti, maybe Robertson. They will be called upon again in the NLCS.

“You can’t write it better,” Rhys Hoskins said about a bullpen game clinching the NLDS. “It’s baseball. That’s the beauty of the game. I’m going to pay my respects to the baseball gods for giving us these situations.”