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April 03, 2017

Phillies win on Opening Day, but is Gomez losing grip on closer's job?

CINCINNATI – The Phillies won on Opening Day for the first time in three years and it wasn't difficult to find someone in a road gray uniform that contributed.

Cesar Hernandez led off the game with a home run, becoming the first Phillies player to do so on Opening Day since 1938. Hernandez’s double play partner, Freddy Galvis, carried over his power binge from the end of last season with a home run of his own to go alongside a double.

Newcomers Howie Kendrick (three hits) and Michael Saunders (first-inning RBI double) chipped in right out of the gate while veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson, taking the mound on Opening Day in Cincinnati for the second straight year, pitched five superb innings and hit an RBI triple, too.

But as the Phillies learned last year in Cincinnati, good mojo on Day One can evaporate quickly by a volatile bullpen. David Hernandez blew his audition as the team’s closer on Opening Day in 2016, a season that began with the Phillies winless in their first four games thanks to a shaky relief corps.

The bullpen arms delivered in relief of Hellickson in Monday’s 4-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Well, at least until the most uncertain of those relievers with the most prestigious bullpen title entered in the ninth.

Jeanmar Gomez gave up a blistering single to begin the inning and then made it a one-run game when he served up an opposite field, two-out, two-run home run to Scooter Gennett. Gomez recovered to secure the game’s final out, but is his job as the team’s closer in jeopardy already?

“I’m concerned about it,” said manager Pete Mackanin, who had both Pat Neshek and Joely Rodriguez warming in the bullpen as Gomez struggled in the ninth. “He’s just not getting the ball down the way he did when he was successful. I want to make sure that he gets opportunities, but at the same time, I don’t want to let games slip away.”

It was a year ago in the same ballpark that the bullpen quickly became the Phillies’ Achilles heel, until, ironically, the unflappable Gomez emerged as the team’s unlikely closer in April after others (Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa) failed to execute in the ninth inning. Gomez converted 37-of-43 save opportunities, bringing stability to the back end of the bullpen for more than four months.

But he struggled badly in the season’s final seven weeks: 0-3 with a 13.20 ERA in his final 19 appearances, as opponents slashed .403/.469/.611 against him. Still, Mackanin and general manager Matt Klentak spoke highly of Gomez this winter and Mackanin felt it was only right to reward the reliever’s first four months of 2016 with the closer’s job entering 2017.

And now, after nearly blowing a 4-1 lead on Opening Day?

“He has to execute,” Mackanin said. “Like I said, for me, he’s earned the right to be the closer for right now. But he’s got to get the ball down. That pitch was up in the zone for an opposite field home run. I don’t want that to happen.”

How tricky is it to walk the line of giving confidence to a veteran while also knowing there could be other, better options to turn to in the ninth inning to secure a lead?

“It’s very tricky,” Mackanin said. “Like I said, he’s earned the right to have the opportunity to be the closer. But at the same time, just because a guy is a closer doesn’t mean you can’t take him out of the game when he’s getting the ball up. So, he got the save. He did the job... As I said last year, and I’ll always say it, you audition every day. Just because you’re the cleanup hitter doesn’t mean you’re going to stay the cleanup hitter. Just because you’re the closer doesn’t mean you have to stay the closer. Like I said, a closer doesn’t have to stay in the game win or lose, it depends on what the manager feels is best for the team. So, you know, we’ll go from there.”

Before Gomez entered on Friday, newcomer (and former Detroit Tigers closer) Joaquin Benoit pitched a perfect sixth inning, striking out two of the three batters he faced. Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris followed with shutout frames in the seventh and eighth, respectively.

“It’s very tricky. Like I said, he’s earned the right to have the opportunity to be the closer. But at the same time, just because a guy is a closer doesn’t mean you can’t take him out of the game when he’s getting the ball up."

Neris was one of baseball’s most lethal bullpen arms last season, racking up 102 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. Benoit has pitched in the ninth and Pat Neshek could probably jump into the role if needed, too.

“I like what I saw from Benoit, from Neris, Ramos has the stuff to be a closer, Neshek I haven’t seen enough of. But I certainly have options,” Mackanin said. “I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it, but I owe it to the team to do what I think is best for the team."

It’ll be interesting to see if, for the second straight year, the Phillies don’t end the month of April with the same closer they began the first month of the season with. Despite racking up all of those saves last year, Gomez didn’t exactly have the peripheral numbers that often accompany shutdown closers: he had a 1.456 WHIP on the season and a 6.16 strikeout rate, the latter ranking 83rd of 86 NL relievers with at least 40 innings.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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