July 6, 2022

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When Brett Phillips pitches, expect hijinks

4 min read
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ST. PETERSBURG — Pitchers are athletes, too. Especially when they’re outfielders. Brett Phillips proved it Monday night at Tropicana Field.

Phillips pitched the final two innings of the Rays’ 13-2 loss to the A’s, providing an entertaining finish to a game in which Tampa Bay lost young starter Luis Patiño to a strained left oblique. It was Phillips’ second pitching appearance in two years — he unveiled what he called his “Mariano Rivera cutter” last July 2 against the Blue Jays in Buffalo, N.Y. — but this time Phillips’ fielding stole the show.

With a runner on first base and one out in the ninth inning, Phillips went through his unusual windup and uncorked a 49 mph lob to Oakland right fielder Seth Brown. Brown took a late hack and popped it up high in foul territory, sailing it toward the A’s dugout on the third-base side. Rays catcher Francisco Mejía started to chase after it, but so did Phillips.

Off Phillips went, dashing downhill off the mound to track the ball before sliding feet-first to make the incredible catch just in front of Oakland’s dugout. The Trop’s public address system responded by playing “Hall of Fame” by The Script as Phillips quickly popped up and hustled back to the mound. Those left in attendance broke into a “LET’S GO BRETT” chant for the fan-favorite Seminole, Fla., native.

“That was unbelievable,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I mean, we’re going to see that play on the highlight reel for the rest of the year.”

Phillips certainly hopes so.

“I’m going to be honest. If I don’t win Catch of the Year for pitcher, I’ll be highly disappointed,” Phillips said. “That’s what I do best is catch baseballs. We all know that.”

Phillips proved it earlier in the game, making a running and sliding catch on the warning track in the right-field corner to rob Billy McKinney of an extra-base hit and record the first out of the second inning. That one didn’t compare to the way he fielded his position in the ninth, though — at least not according to Phillips, who said his play off the mound was “definitely at the top” of the list of his best catches.

“When you get going fast off a steep hill like I did, you have more momentum to get to where you have to be,” he said. “And obviously, going back to my slip-and-slide days, I know towards the end of the slip-and-slide, you always want to be prepared to bounce back up, because you know you have someone coming behind you and you don’t want to get hit. So [I] slid, popped up, got back where I needed to be so no one was coming sliding in behind me.”

Phillips covered 90 feet in a hurry to make the grab, according to Statcast, and reached a maximum sprint speed of 28.4 feet per second, well above the Major League average. The Rays aren’t about to bring the speedy outfielder into their pitcher’s fielding practice drills next Spring Training, although it might not shock anyone to hear Phillips would make himself available to provide such instruction.

“It may be an opportunity for me to get in the classroom with these guys and show the pitchers what athletes really look like,” he deadpanned.

After Patiño’s early exit, the Rays asked Phillips to give them two innings to help keep their pitching staff fresh for their next stretch of games without an off-day. Phillips said he told Cash he was available for four innings, if necessary.

“One of those situations where we all know that I’m the best off the bench, position player-wise. It’s known across the league, OK. It’s no secret,” Phillips said. “Whatever value I can bring to this team, whether it’s in the outfield, on the basepaths, hitting and, of course, pitching. Unfortunately I didn’t have my best tonight.”

Last summer, Phillips began his pitching debut by zipping in a 94.3 mph fastball. This time, he stuck to the slow stuff. He threw only five pitches in the eighth, the Rays’ most efficient inning of the night, then gave up a grand slam to Sheldon Neuse three batters after his highlight-reel catch in the next frame.

“It’s totally different, especially with the way he was throwing,” Neuse said. “You don’t practice it. You don’t do anything like that. So the first time you see it, you can’t make sense of it. You’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ Your body just doesn’t want to wait that long, I guess.”

“Pitching performance was a little underwhelming. I’m going to have to call my mom and basically explain to her that I just didn’t have my best stuff tonight.”

Phillips came to the plate with two outs in the ninth, which technically made him the third “pitcher” with a plate appearance in Tropicana Field history. He joined Andy Sonnanstine, who hit on May 17, 2009, due to a mistake on the Rays’ lineup card, and Wade Boggs, who grounded out after facing one batter.

“That’s a great part of history to be a part of, and especially in my hometown to be able to be a two-way superstar that I am,” Phillips said.

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