CLEARWATER, Fla. - The room was empty when the last of them arrived: a lean figure with bristly black hair and red workout clothes, his chest in the midst of the post-workout process of rising and falling back to homeostasis. Every day, it goes like this. A half hour after the rest of the team scatters, the accidental closer arrives to an empty room.
"When I do something, I have to do it good," Jeanmar Gomez said on Thursday afternoon. "I don't want to do something just to do it. Everything has to have a purpose."
They were interesting words, given the context in which they were spoken. Fresh off a season in which he converted 37 of his 43 save opportunities after being thrust into the closer's role, Gomez has spent much of the early days of spring training listening to people wonder which of his teammates will end up taking his job.
From an objective viewpoint, the speculation has been warranted, not only because of the righthander's struggles down the stretch - over the Phillies' last 44 games, he blew three saves and allowed 23 runs in 15 innings - but because he was never supposed to have the job to begin with. A career long man/spot starter valued more for his durability than his dominance, Gomez possesses neither the electric fastball nor the wipeout offspeed pitch of a prototypical late-inning ace. The career-high 6.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings he posted last season pale in comparison with those put up by players such as Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos and Joaquin Benoit over the course of their careers.
When the Phillies signed Benoit to a $7.5 million contract this offseason, they indicated publicly that he would be part of a spring competition for the closer's job, and when Pete Mackanin's insisted earlier this week that the job still belongs to Gomez, he was greeted with skepticism by the local press.
Yet until somebody tells Gomez that he is no longer the closer, he seems determined to become the best one he can. On Thursday morning, he enlisted some serious help, tracking down 2008 Phillies star Brad Lidge for an in-depth conversation on the keys to shutting down the ninth. An hour before the players took the field, Gomez and Lidge stood outside the coaches locker room at Spectrum Field, Lidge wearing his familiar No. 54 uniform, Gomez leaning against a wall and nodding attentively.
"The first full season of closing, physically it's taxing, but also mentally, and we were just talking about ways to stay fresh and stay at that high level all year," said Lidge, who is in camp as a special instructor for the first time since retiring in 2012 with 225 career saves, 100 of them for the Phillies. "He's shown he can do it, and he's shown he can do it, I think, for a full season. So this year, I think it's going to be more about maintenance through the year as he goes, throwing program, maybe taking a day off here and there and making sure that when you get to that finish line in September, you are able to accelerate up instead of feeling tired."
The concrete similarities between Lidge and Gomez are few. Lidge spent a five-year stretch as one of the most dominant closers in the game, using a mid-90s fastball and hellacious slider to rack up swings-and-misses. Culminating in his perfect 2008 season, Lidge saved 163 games over a five-year stretch in which he averaged 13.0 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.7 walks per nine while posting a 2.92 ERA for the Astros and Phillies.
Gomez, conversely, uses an array of pitches to keep hitters off-balance, relying on ground balls and weak contact to record his outs. In seven big-league seasons, he has averages of 5.5 strikeouts and 2.9 walks-per nine innings. Even when he was at his best last season, he wasn't overpowering. In his first 51 appearances, when he recorded 30 saves and blew three, he struck out just 37 while walking 14 in 532/3 innings, allowing an average of more than one baserunner per inning.
Gomez's lack of of strikeout stuff means he is more reliant on his defense for outs, and less able to pitch his own way out of trouble. It also means he is reliant on baseball's maddening odds. In those last 19 appearances, his rate stats remained largely the same as they were in his first 51, most notably his groundball ratio, which was actually better in that end-of-the-season stretch (1.21, compared with 1.13). He allowed roughly the same percentage of balls in play, the difference being that 44.1 percent of them went for hits, including eight for extra bases (in 72 total at-bats). In his first 51 games, just 28.6 percent of his balls in play resulted in hits, with 13 going for extra bases (in 198 total at-bats).
Still, Lidge thinks a closer can succeed with Gomez's stuff.
"You look at a lot of a closers that don't necessarily have that mid-90s fastball that have been getting it done," he said. "A guy like Huston Street never really had that big fastball. He's got a good slider, but he's got great location and command, and I think Jeanmar's got that, as well. It think you can have success. It's a little bit tougher, you have to be a little bit more precise, but you can definitely have success doing that . . . I really believe Jeanmar can have a full season like he had those first five months if he doesn't get tired."
Hours after practice, Gomez returned from the weight room and turned down the dial on another day. One thing, he made clear. Whatever his role, he will put in the work.