TORONTO — Seranthony Dominguez was so dominant and so reliable for the first three months of his major-league career that managing the Phillies bullpen became almost elementary.
Need a big out? Here comes Dominguez. Looking a pitcher to lock down the ninth? Call on Dominguez. Bases loaded on the road? Bring in Dominguez. Need an accident lawyer? Give Dominguez a try.
OK so maybe Dominguez couldn't do everything. But it sure seemed like he could. The rookie righthander was the most dependable arm in the bullpen and he quickly became Gabe Kapler's weapon of choice. He became so trusted because of his confidence. His heartbeat, Kapler said, remained the same no matter how tense the situation was.
But it was a lack of confidence that caused Kapler to trot to the mound Saturday and remove Dominguez after the pitcher loaded the bases in the eighth inning of an 8-6 loss. Dominguez had his fourth troubling outing in his last seven appearances. The Phillies are in a playoff chase. The games are more crucial than ever. And their weapon seems to be faltering.
"What we want to do is look to help him get his confidence back," Kapler said. "This is a lot for a young pitcher who is still developing. We have a ton of confidence in him. That hasn't wavered at all. We're just looking for him to get that confidence back in himself."
Dominguez started Saturday with a strikeout of Justin Smoak to end the seventh. He quelled a Blue Jays rally and protected a one-run lead. That was a confident pitcher, Kapler thought. But then things fell apart when the Phillies pushed Dominguez back for the eighth inning. The righthander gave up a leadoff single, recorded an out, and then loaded the bases by issuing a walk and hitting a batter.
Victor Arano was employed into an unwinnable situation. The Blue Jays cleared the bases against Arano and Dominguez garnered the loss. The Phillies ran to contention thanks to the dependability of their bullpen, which was dependable thanks to the ability to use Dominguez whenever the situation became crucial. But now, for the season's final stretch, managing the bullpen may not be as easy as it once was.
"We have a lot of weapons that we trust. You saw how we deployed Arano in that situation because we trusted him to get swings and misses," Kapler said. "Had the ninth inning come up, we would have trusted Pat Neshek to get three huge outs for us. I have a lot of faith in Luis Garcia to utilize his slider to get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out right now. There's no shortage of weapons down there. There's no shortage of power arms down there. Seranthony is one of them, has always been one of them, and will continue to be one of them."
Imagine how much worse the first two games in Toronto would sting had the Phillies not escaped Thursday in Washington with a win over the Nationals. That win can be credited to Aaron Nola, whose whiff against Bryce Harper was the most impressive strikeout this season by a Phillies pitcher. But perhaps more impressive was what led to it happening.
Nola and catcher Jorge Alfaro planned to attack Harper with curveballs in the eighth inning. But Harper took a big swing at Nola's curveball, which was lacking the signature shape it had early in the game. Nola, manager Gabe Kapler said, "has a really strong intuition." So in the middle of the biggest at-bat of the season with the game on the line, Nola decided to switch the gameplan and attack Harper with fastballs. Harper swung and missed at two of them.