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April 05, 2016

Phillies closer-in-waiting Hinojosa eager for opportunity

CINCINNATI – Dalier Hinojosa sat on the bench beyond the right field fence at Great American Ball Park on Monday afternoon and waited. He was ready. He was eager for the opportunity.

It never arrived.

Among the subplots in the ugly 6-2 loss the Phillies suffered on Opening Day in Cincinnati was that Hinojosa, one of the seven members of the team’s current makeshift bullpen, was in line to save a major league game for the first time in his career.

Hinojosa, who was 2 1/2 years removed from leaving Cuba for a $4 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, was unofficially tabbed the Phillies closer on Monday. Hinojosa, who few (if any) Phillies fans had ever heard of this time a year ago, had been entrusted with the most prestige role in the relief corps.

“We were going to go to him,” said manager Pete Mackanin, whose team had a 2-1 lead entering the eighth inning. “We’re searching right now to try to find the right formula (for the back of the bullpen) and the formula didn’t work today.”

David Hernandez failed his first test. James Russell, like Hernandez before him, failed to throw enough strikes. Hector Neris failed to stop the bleeding.

Hinojosa, however, didn’t get his own opportunity to hold the lead on Monday. Perhaps that comes Wednesday, in the second game of the season.

Whenever it does come, the 30-year-old right-hander will be ready.

Prior to Monday’s game, as players prepped for the season opener inside the visiting clubhouse, Hinojosa was asked about his status at the time as the pitcher most likely to get the ball in the ninth inning.

“It’s a great opportunity, an awesome opportunity that God has given me and the Phillies have given me,” said Hinojosa, a spiritual man who doesn’t throw “God” around in cliche athlete-speak, said through a translator. “I just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I know it’s a really important job. So I just want to work hard, show them that all of the hard work I’ve put out throughout the years, even in Cuba, that this is a result of it. I want to show what I have.”

Hinojosa had not been named the Phillies closer yet. That basically came after the game, although there’s a fair chance it will be a fluid situation at least in the season’s first few weeks.

No matter, Hinojosa has a fan in Mackanin. Just as the constant praise Mackanin lauded on Cedric Hunter at every turn late in camp was a strong signal that the veteran outfielder would land a roster spot, the manager made similar comments throughout the last few weeks of spring training about Hinojosa.

He repeated them early on Monday when asked about the two clunky outings the pitcher had toward the end of spring in save situations, including on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park when he blew a one-run lead against the Baltimore Orioles. Hinojosa served up a home run to the first batter he faced, walked three batters, and unleashed a wild pitch, too.

“This is nothing,” Hinojosa said with a smile. “Closing a game is nothing compared to leaving Cuba.”

“I was disappointed, but when you back at what he did last year, in 22 or 23 innings his ERA was under 1.00,” Mackanin said of Hinojosa, who had a 0.78 ERA in 18 games with the Phillies in 2015. “He threw strikes, challenged hitters, had a good split, a good breaking ball. Kept them down in the zone. I was a little surprised that (in those two spring games) he looked like he was pressing, looked like he was overthrowing because he’s probably thinking that he’d like to be the closer. So he was probably pressing to get it done. Which is part of being a closer; you can’t press. You have to pitch smart, and pitch aggressive.”

Hinojosa’s background would lead you to believe that developing the mentality of a closer should not be a problem. Hinojosa once boarded a tiny motorboat in the wee hours of the morning, risking his life with his wife in tow, to escape Cuba.

So, the pressure of ninth inning outs?

“This is nothing,” Hinojosa said with a smile. “Closing a game is nothing compared to leaving Cuba.”

Hinojosa’s first opportunity to carve out a spot in the big leagues was short-lived. He made just one major league appearance with Boston and quickly fell into the category that’s rarely a good one for a player: entering your late 20s, stuck at Triple-A.

In mid-July, Hinojosa was the victim of a numbers crunch. The Red Sox removed him from their 40-man roster to promote pitching prospect and former first-round pick Brian Johnson.

But the closing of one door became the opening of another, for both the pitcher and the Phillies, who claimed him off waivers, sent him to Triple-A for a short stint, and then inserted him into their transitioning bullpen.

“In my own opinion, I believe the Red Sox rushed into a decision,” he said. “They rushed into it. they had to make a roster move and I happen to be the guy they decided to move. But I feel blessed that I’m here. Maybe God wanted me to be here. And this is where I’m going to be a better pitcher, where I’m going to show the world that I can be the pitcher I know I can be.”

Hinojosa certainly showed promise at the end of last summer. That promise has led to a new opportunity, one both he and his manager can only hope will arrive before the Phillies leave Cincinnati on Thursday night.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21