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Elephant Rumblings: Analysis of Rays outfielder Brett Phillips pitching to A’s

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Tuesday, Athletics Nation!

The A’s walloped the Rays yesterday afternoon, winning 13-2 and removing the Rays title of the only undefeated team in baseball. It was a lively game, with four A’s homers, Sean Murphy beautifully taking a pitch off his butt, and a fantastic start from Paul Blackburn. But what is perhaps the highlight of the blowout game was a two-inning relief pitching appearance from Rays outfielder Brett Phillips.

Making his second career appearance as a position-player-pitching, Phillips covered the 8th and 9th innings for a Rays bullpen that had been throwing since starter Luis Patiño was injured with only two outs in the 1st inning. Trying to save arms, Phillips, who is a noted character on the field, was called on to finish up the game.

As always with a fielder on the mound that doesn’t have the last name Ohtani, there is an interesting mix of pitches and speeds that don’t usually show up in an MLB game. There’s also the consideration from the offence, who are often flummoxed and whiff on slow eephus-like pitches as often as they’re are able to tee off on those meatballs. Some players find it more sporting to get the inning over with ASAP, while others may lean into the silliness of sub-50mph pitches coming their way. Over the two innings Philips pitched to the entire A’s lineup, so let’s indulge and dive into each of their approaches:

8th Inning

Cristian Pache

Pache was the first up to face Phillips, and the rookie watched two pitches come sailing in high above the zone (including one charitably called strike) before taking a hack at a slider that was head-high and away. For a swing that looked like he was playing pepper rather than facing a pitcher, Pache took the ball for a ride to the warning track in left, feet shy of a homer. Cristian’s demeanour was as per usual, taking it as a serious at-bat even if he flew out to a six-foot-high pitch. Phillips threw in a playful taunt to boot.

Tony Kemp

The first pitch to Kemp came in at about an equal height above his zone as Pache’s last pitch did. What did Tony do? He bopped it back for what got credited as an infield single due to the ball getting caught in Wander Franco’s glove. Kemp legged it out and stayed serious and professional for the brief at-bat.

Elvis Andrus

Elvis got a first pitch in the strike zone! Of course he hit a screaming grounder to Yandy Diaz ending up with an inning-ending double play. As soon as he made contact you could see Andrus smiling, not taking the whole thing too seriously, having fun with it even if the result didn’t go his way.

9th inning

Billy McKinney

Billy took it easy, Phillips tossed them high and away to the lefty. Aside from the second pitch that came in to the inside top corner of the zone (which McKinney fouled off), Billy watched them float by and took his free base. His stance was a bit relaxed, though he paid attention to make sure he wouldn’t get taken advantage of. McKinney seemed to approach the plate appearance ready to sit back and get walked from the start. Note that McKinney saw the fastest of Phillips’ 28 pitches, a 51.8mph screamer at head level.

Sean Murphy

Phillips was pitching so quickly that we didn’t even get to see his first throw to Murphy (surprise, surprise an outside ball way up high). From the brief glimpse we get to see of Murphy’s AB, there is only one word that comes to mind: opportunistic. Sean seemed ready to hit one hard enough to burst through the back wall of Tropicana Field. The second pitch came in just above the zone at 44mph, and left Murphy’s bat going 104mph. Murphy swung hard enough to add 60mph of force to the ball. Unfortunately the ball’s angle off the bat lined it nearly directly to Kevin Kiermaier in centre, rather than sending it over the fences. While jogging back to the dugout, Murphy seemed ready for the whole thing to be done, his feat of strength for naught.

Seth Brown

Brown stepped into the box much like Murphy did, ready to absolutely cream the first hittable ball he could see. Phillips got his second called strike against Brown, as he watched the first one sail in, attuning to the shift in speed. Phillips’ second pitch ran so far outside that Statcast read it as a curveball (all of Philips’ other pitchers are marked as sliders). By pitch three Brown was impatient to replicate his 400+ foot heroics from earlier in the game, giving a hard swing at a ball sailing in above his head. Thankfully he fouled the ball back, but you can see Brown chastising himself immediately for not waiting for something more hittable. Brown tried again with a much better pitch, just outside with mid-zone height, but cued another foul ball off the end of his bat, popping it towards the A’s dugout.

Here’s where the worst possible outcome happens for Brown, when the pitcher he’s facing has the legs of an outfielder. Phillips booked it off the mound and made a highlight reel sliding catch for the second out. Bad luck for Brown who has to return to the very dugout Phillips just sealed his fate in front of.

Chad Pinder

Chad was all business, the first pitch came into the lower outside corner of the strike zone (his weakest hitting area) and he connected to send a ripping liner up the left field foul line all the way to the wall for a double. Cold, calculated, Pinder was ready. Chad got the most hittable pitch of the inning and he capitalized, getting McKinney and himself into scoring position like a professional.

Stephen Vogt

Speaking of capitalizing on things, Stephen Vogt had yet to get on base in four trips so far this game. Despite the St. Petersburg crowd erupting in coordinated chants for Phillips, Vogt stayed focused. This was not the time for extending to an 0-for-5 game, at worst he had to get to first via a free pass. And that is what Stephen did, despite Phillips throwing his third and final called strike of the game, Vogt remained cool and watched four balls come in to earn a walk and load the bases. Also, to illustrate the speed at which Phillips pitched, I timed the Vogt at-bat. From the time that Phillips’ foot first hits the rubber to when the fifth pitch gets called for a walk: 59.88 seconds. A full five-pitch AB in under a minute, how’s that for pace of play?

Sheldon Neuse

They say sharks become ravenous when they sense blood in the water. There is a cold determination on Neuse’s face as he matches up with Phillips. He’s seen the mistakes that Seth Brown made, fouling away misfires. He knows that the zone can be struck from Pinder. At worst, he could end up walking like Vogt. But Sheldon? Sheldon wants it all. Philips is vulnerable. Sheldon is ready to strike. He’s ready for Phillips to throw him the perfect pitch.

Pitch 1? No sir.

Pitch 2? No thanks.

Pitch 3? That’s the one.

Obviously Phillips didn’t spend time in the video room studying his opponent’s proclivities before the game, because he absolutely grooved one to Neuse’s hottest part of the zone. Sheldon hammered the ball for a near-400 foot grand slam, the first of his career. Phillips was crestfallen.

Cristian Pache, round 2

Wrapping up the inning after Neuse’s heroics, Pache got one more crack at Phillips. He got a middle-middle pitch and was ready to join the homer club. While he blasted the ball farther than Neuse’s, Pache also hit it to the wrong side of the left foul line. Pache then flew out to right field on the next head-high pitch, and the A’s/Phillips saga was over. For now at least.

So what do we learn from all this? That the A’s batters can muscle a ball out of the park? That Seth Brown needs to stay patient? That position players pitching make for an entertaining time? For me, there’s one easy answer: after their misfortunes in the City of Brotherly Love on Friday and Saturday, the Athletics decided as a team on Sunday to turn on the heat when their opponent started with ‘Philli”.

Phillips just happened to get in the way of this unstoppable machine.

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