PHILADELPHIA — It was another loss in another lost season, with more struggles ahead. J.T. Realmuto, the stalwart catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, gazed to the outfield during a pitching change. A reliever sprinted in from the bullpen, and Realmuto sighed. He closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, shook his head — the body language of exasperated resignation. Every Phillies fan could relate.
Realmuto meant nothing by it, he insisted, but when a moment becomes a GIF, it’s too late for context. The eye roll, as it was known, came to symbolize the persistent follies of the Phillies’ bullpen.
That was in 2019, and for most of the next three seasons, the late innings only got worse for the Phillies. Yet this October, when it matters most, the Phillies are locking down leads as they march through the National League playoffs.
What in the name of Tug McGraw is going on here?
“That’s the difference in this season and seasons past for me: we have guys that we can rely on back there,” Realmuto said on Friday, after the Phillies’ 4-2 victory over the San Diego Padres in Game 3 of the N.L. Championship Series. “When we get a lead early in the game, we have a lot of confidence in the guys we can hand the ball to.”
The Phillies hold a two-games-to-one advantage in the N.L.C.S. for the first time since 2009, the last year they won the pennant. Seranthony Domínguez collected the final six outs on Friday for the Phillies’ first two-inning postseason save since McGraw clinched the 1980 World Series.
“I didn’t know that; thank you for telling me,” Domínguez said after Game 3. “I’m here just to pitch and to do my job. I’m out of the game when they say you’re out. When I’m still in the game, I’m going to try to get people out.”
There are no more scheduled off-days in this series, and relievers may wear down as the work piles up. But the Phillies’ Rob Thomson managed aggressively on Friday, using starter Ranger Suárez for five innings and his bullpen for four.
“As we get deeper into the five days, we’re going to have to be careful,” Thomson conceded, but he saw a chance for a victory on Friday and seized it with his best relievers.
The Phillies are 5-0 when Domínguez pitches, 5-0 when Zach Eflin pitches and 7-0 when José Alvarado pitches. All three worked in Game 3 and Thomson has deployed each for a save this postseason.
“I’ve always kind of thought that if guys can handle the moment in the seventh, eighth, ninth — especially the ninth — that you should be able to maneuver a guy or guys into that inning based on where you are in the lineup,” Thomson said earlier in the N.L.C.S. “So now we know that Alvarado can handle it, Domínguez can handle it, Eflin can handle it.”
Thomson also cited the right-hander Andrew Bellatti, and he used the veteran David Robertson for six saves down the stretch. Robertson was warming up in the ninth inning on Friday in case Domínguez got tired, but that didn’t happen: after a leadoff single, Domínguez retired the side.
Jurickson Profar was the first out, fanning when he tried to check his swing on a four-seam fastball that fooled him when it veered sharply inside as it crossed the plate. (“He fooled me, too,” Realmuto said. “I wasn’t expecting it to cut that much at 99 miles an hour.”) Profar cursed an umpire, kicked his helmet and earned an ejection.
After Trent Grisham popped out, Austin Nola whiffed on a slider to end it. Domínguez used everything he had in Game 3, and the Padres could not solve him.
“He’s just so different from every other pitcher,” Realmuto said. “He’s got four plus-pitches that he throws for strikes — he’s got the four-seam, two-seam, slider and changeup, and he can throw them any time. It keeps the hitters never feeling good at the plate, because they never know what’s coming and it’s all really good.”
The right-handed Domínguez has faced 22 batters this postseason and retired 20, with 13 strikeouts and no walks. He and Alvarado, a lefty, have held hitters to a combined .125 average this postseason (6 for 48) with fastballs that average about 99 miles an hour.
“I don’t know how guys throw it so hard, seriously,” said Robertson, 37, who remembers when this was uncommon. “I rear back and throw and I don’t even want to look at the board.”
Domínguez, 27, signed with the Phillies from the Dominican Republic on Oct. 6, 2011; one day later, the Phillies lost a division series to St. Louis to begin their 10-season playoff absence. After a promising debut in 2018, Domínguez soon missed two and a half years with elbow problems that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
The Phillies never found a way to replace him, and their bullpen misadventures sank their hopes in 2020, when they ranked last in the majors in bullpen E.R.A., and again last season, when they ranked 25th. Whoever they tried — Brandon Workman, Ian Kennedy, Archie Bradley and so on — they mostly just needed Domínguez.
“We all saw the work that Seranthony was putting in throughout those two years and how diligent he was in the process,” Realmuto said. “It’s hard to know that he was going to come back and be this good — because he’s been incredible for us — but we’re not surprised at all by the way he’s pitching just because we saw how he worked.”
Alvarado, 27, struggled with his weight and control over four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, who signed him from Venezuela in 2012. He pitched for the Rays in the 2020 American League Championship Series, but was dropped from the World Series roster and traded to the Phillies that December.
“I remember that moment when Tampa took me off the roster,” Alvarado said Friday night. “It’s past. I’m on a new team. I’m so happy to stay here. I feel great because I put in everything for my team, for this city, because I pitch a lot.”
Alvarado has pitched in all of the Phillies’ victories this postseason and none of their losses. This seemed highly unlikely in May, when he was sent to the minors for two weeks with a 7.62 E.R.A. But he returned with a sharper mental outlook, better mechanics, more trust in his cutter and a new perspective.
“I am a different Alvarado,” he said. “I know the game’s not easy. If you got a bad day today, tomorrow’s a new day.”
The Phillies have not had many bad days this October. With two more good ones, they will reach the World Series.