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March 29, 2016

The mystery continues: Who will be the Phillies closer?

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Jeremy Hellickson gives the Phillies a sparkling effort, going seven innings and allowing just one run. Maikel Franco pops a three-run home run in the third inning.

With Joey Votto due up, James Russell handles the eighth inning and holds the Reds off the scoreboard.

Who is taking the ball in the ninth inning? Who will close for the Phillies if a save situation arises in the regular season opener on Monday?

“You’ll find out,” general manager Matt Klentak said with a smile before his eyes began to grow big. “I’ll find out.”

“It’s up in the air,” manager Pete Mackanin said later Tuesday afternoon.

The Phillies haven’t had such uncertainty in their closers role in more than a decade and a half.

Jonathan Papelbon, the franchise’s all-time saves leader, was in the role this time last year and gave way to Ken Giles after the trade deadline. Ryan Madson, who hit the free agent market the same winter as Papelbon, was in the role before that, and, of course, Madson stepped in for Brad Lidge. Before Lidge, there was Brett Myers, who stepped in for an injured Tom Gordon. Before Gordon, Billy Wagner. Before Wagner, Jose Mesa.

You have to go back to at least the 1998-2000, post-Ricky Bottalico era when former first-round pick Wayne Gomes and veteran Jeff Brantley held down the role (and that’s putting it kindly) when the ninth inning role was as big of a question mark as it is today.

“We’re thinking about it, we’re trying to figure out the best way to go,” Mackanin said on Monday afternoon, minutes after the latest possible closer candidate, Dalier Hinojosa, served up a go-ahead, two-run home run in the eighth inning in Dunedin. “It’s not going to be easy.”

The guy who entered camp as the pitcher most likely to break camp as the closer may actually turn up being the guy leaving camp most likely to be closer: David Hernandez.

Hernandez was the team’s only major league free agent this winter, signing a one-year, $3.9 million deal the same week the team parted ways with Giles. Although he wasn’t signed to official be the closer – Hernandez was acquired before they dealt Giles – the long-time set-up man’s contract included as much as $1 million in bonuses in games finished ($250,000 each for 35, 40, 45, and 50 games finished).

Hernandez had a troublesome start to the Grapefruit League schedule earlier this month, missing two weeks with elbow soreness. He’s looked better since his first outing upon returning to active duty but still hasn’t pitched on consecutive days (or even twice in a three-day span).

He was scheduled to pitch in back-to-back days in the final two days in Clearwater on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We don’t expect there are going to be any issues or reservations for how we use him,” Klentak said before Tuesday’s game. “He’s been perfectly healthy, feeling great, no problems the last couple of weeks.”

The 30-year-old Hinojosa could still be an option. He surely won’t be thrown out of the mix for one home run allowed during the final week of camp. Hinojosa impressed Mackanin at the end of last year (two earned runs in 24 2/3 innings) and the manager has continued to rave about him all spring.

“I think he was overthrowing all of his pitches,” Mackanin said Tuesday of Hinojosa’s outing on Monday. “I think he might have been auditioning for that role, trying to gain control on that, whatever kind of competition it is.”

The three pitchers with the most closing experience one their resumes do not seem like favorites. Well, one of them surely isn’t since he was released on Tuesday morning.

Edward Mujica, who saved 37 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013, was released prior to Tuesday’s game. Mujica had decent numbers this spring (two earned runs in 8 1/3 innings, with seven strikeouts and two walks) but was apparently the victim of a numbers crunch.

As a free agent with at least six years of big league service time, Mujica would have been owed $100,000 had he been sent down to Triple-A. He also had an out he could have exercised if he was not guaranteed a spot on the 25-man roster.

“The truth is a lot of our players have thrown the ball well,” Klentak said. “Even in the remaining decisions, it’s going to be hard to pin it down to who breaks with us as the first seven. But as we all know, no team is likely to get through a season with the same seven-man bullpen they started the season with. We’re trying to balance all of those factors (and) put together the best opening day group as well as preserving as much depth as we can for the year.”

Like Mujica, Andrew Bailey and Ernesto Frieri are former closers. But like Mujica, they were signed to minor league contracts this winter, and could both benefit from more work in the minor leagues next month.

Both Bailey and Mujica have been inconsistent – Mujica in the first half of games, Bailey in the last half – and could work out kinks and develop better arm strength with reps at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Less than two weeks after both he and pitching coach Bob McClure labeled Bailey the favorite for the closer’s job, Mackanin has been critical each of the last three times he’s been asked about the South Jersey product and former two-time All-Star.

“I need to see more from him,” Mackanin said earlier this week. “Let’s leave it at that.”

Jeanmar Gomez will be in the bullpen, but doesn’t seem like a realistic candidate. Left-hander Brett Oberholtzer, who was hit hard by the Yankees on Tuesday, is the long man in the 'pen. Daniel Stumpf is a Rule 5 pick not outfitted for the job. Hector Neris? He could surely make the Opening Day roster, but doesn’t seem like a likely ninth-inning option.

So who’s left to close? Take your best guess.

“We’ll come up with something,” Mackanin said. “And hopefully, it will work out.”

Could the Phillies punt the whole idea of having one guy in the role altogether?

“Unless I’m 100 percent sure about somebody that I want to call a closer, I’m not going to call anybody a closer,” Mackanin said. “You know, when you think about it, closer is someone you can count on for the ninth inning. I don’t know if –– I’m hoping we have one, but I’m not going to name it right now. Just to call a guy a closer doesn’t really mean anything.”