Curt Phillips, you see, is a closer. One of those guys who comes in to get the last three outs. Most of the time, he’s nervous, and as you’ll see, for most of his career, that nervousness was earned.
Now, however, the season that was 2038 has faded a bit, and that bittersweet pill of losing in the Doubleday has washed away. Now Curt Phillips can step back and breathe a little. And when he does, he finds these kinds of numbers: 42 saves in 44 opportunities, a league best. A 3.31 ERA that’s clouded by a single tough start in 69 otherwise relief appearances. A 140 ERA+ as a reliever, and a whole bunch of redemption.
At 23, you see, Curt Phillips may have just found his grove.
“About time,” he says later when I’ll run his line past him.
Now, however, as a waiter brings his coffee, Phillips apologizes for being late and for his compressed schedule. “I’ll be heading to California to spend a month with my parents, and do some rock climbing,” he explains his rushed schedule. “Then it’ll be down to Arizona for a fitness workshop, and before you know it the calendar will be February and time for camp.”
“At Fool’s Gulch?” I say, and he rolls his eyes in the affirmative. “I hate that place.”
I can forgive both his rushed feeling as well as the concern he likely had about his career. When we talk about his first years with the team, you can hear the disappointment on his voice. The one-time first round pick had been considered a sure thing back in 2035 when he had a 7-start stint with the parent club that didn’t go down at all. Then he struggled as the closer the following season, pitching a 5-10 record over a 4.48 ERA. Not horrible, but not end of the 9th kind of stuff. TO add kerosene to the mix, he was so bad last year that he rode the AAA shuttle up and down the roster two or three times.
“I hated that, too,” he said. “But, hell, my ERA ended up higher than 5.5. Do you blame them?”
Phillips knew something had to give, and this year it was the rest of the league. He knew it from the minute he arrived in camp, and from the minute he started throwing pitches against the wall at Fool’s Gulch.
The stuff that had always been good was still good, but suddenly there was command to go with it. “I’d think ‘throw it up and in,' and damned if that’s not where it went.” Phillips smiled then, and only if you looked closely could you see the layer of fear that still sits under that exterior. This was his year. Make or break. It was so questionable that the team had signed him to a cheap $800K contract for next year, buying out one arbitration season, which Phillips took because, well, because he didn’t know what the future held.
“I wanted a guarantee,” he said, explaining why he took what will turn out to be a great deal for the Nine. “My mom and my dad taught me about money, and about being careful. I live in this nice, but little apartment, you know? I try to keep it real. All the money’s going into the bank right now, and I figure if I can keep getting paid for a few more years I’m set for life. Maybe that’ll come, and if it does that’s great. But, man, when you’re 22 and you got a 5.5 ERA, you’re willing to give a little for a sure $880K. That’s more money than my mom’s made her entire life, you know?”
Needless to say, it’s unlikely the next contract will come that cheaply for the Nine. The 42 saves, matched with those of his first three seasons, leave him at 104 for his career, which is 5th on the franchise’s all-time list. If he duplicates that next season, he’d be #3. Another and he’d be #2, just a touch behind Pablo Romero, who currently sits in the team’s Hall of Fame.
“Let’s not get going too fast there,” Phillips says when I wave that line around him. “That’s a lot of baseball left to be played.”
I ask him about the idea that closers are over-rated. That some say it’s easy to rack up saves, and that all you have to do is be on a good team, stroll into a game, and get three outs. His smile starts with his eyes then, and then his lips start to curl up a little. Next thing you know, his teeth are shining bright and white in the sun that’s cutting into the café from outside.
“Well,” he says, “I tell you what. Anyone who says that is welcome to come around and face Mons Raider and Jon Mick, or try to get a fastball past Emilio Morales with a couple on.” He goes on to talk about situations, and how sure, sometimes you get a deal where you’re up three runs and the team’s cruising, but a lot of times you don’t. “There’s a difference between a relief pitcher and a closer,” he says in the end. “I should know, right?”
And I see it then, without him saying a thing I hear the ending to that idea. Curt Phillips is one who knows the difference between a relief pitcher and a closer because until this year, Curt Phillips had been one of the former. Now, however, as I look across the table at him, and as he apologizes once again for needing to bring this interview to a more abrupt end than maybe I’d like, I realize that I’m not having coffee with a relief pitcher.
Now Curt Phillips slides ten bucks under his cup for the waiter and slides out of the booth. He smiles and when he walks across the floor, and waves when he first opens the door, then turns around to very firmly draw it shut.
Wouldn’t want the cold to get in, I think, as I warm my hands on my own cup. Leave a crack, and next thing you know, the whole inning blows up.