Ranger Suárez’s giant leap forward for Phillies: 112-pitch shutout is latest evidence of new focus

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Ranger Suárez’s giant leap forward for Phillies: 112-pitch shutout is latest evidence of new focus

PHILADELPHIA — A few hours before Ranger Suárez authored one of the finest starts of his career, he was stressed. The Venezuelan lefty has a carefree spirit. The Phillies have come to love him for his steadiness, although they have always wondered if he could reach a higher level. But, on Tuesday afternoon, something important had his attention: Barcelona was in the Champions League quarterfinals.

As clubhouse attendants scrambled to find a working feed for the TVs, Suárez streamed it. He hunched over his phone. Barcelona scored in the 12th minute and Suárez tossed his phone on the ground to celebrate. A pitcher is not to be disturbed on the day he starts. But Suárez is never serious. Unless it’s about soccer.

“Sorry,” he said. He smiled.

There is something about Suárez that has allowed him to simultaneously be underrated across baseball but leave the Phillies craving more. He has never made 30 starts or reached 160 innings in a big-league season. He has again and again risen to the biggest moments in October. He thew the pitch that clinched a National League pennant. He made one too many mistakes in a bittersweet Game 7 of last year’s National League Championship Series.

He is always on the precipice of something great. Then, in the 18th game of this Phillies season, he tossed a 112-pitch shutout. He has a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings.

“I feel like that’s the best version of Ranger we’ve seen,” J.T. Realmuto said after a crisp 5-0 win over the Rockies. “And I think it’s because he was more ready to start the season than usual.”

The Phillies have dreamed of Suárez making the leap. He is a good mid-rotation starter. He could be something better. Maybe he is overshadowed by Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, two righties who are paid like aces. Suárez is not that. But he has oozed control to begin 2024. It’s not just where he locates his pitches. It is also the tempo with which he mows through hitters. It is how he fields his position.

It is how easy he makes it all look.

“I wouldn’t label him as a No. 3 anymore if he takes that leap,” Realmuto said. “He’s so good that he’d become 1A, 1B, 1C for me. Like, he’s that good. He’s got that type of talent. So, hopefully, he can take that jump. It’s not easy to stay healthy for 200 innings, but Ranger’s got it in him for sure.”

“I think,” Bryce Harper said, “he’s the best three in the game.”

It started over the winter in Venezuela. Suárez trained better — and smarter. He had his paperwork to enter the United States earlier than ever. He had a full spring training for the first time ever. Was there anything specific Realmuto noticed during camp?

“Yeah,” Realmuto said. “He was there. He was in spring training. That was the difference.”

Ranger Suárez had a full spring training this year, and it shows. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

Maybe it’s that simple. Suárez, before 2024, had appeared in a total of four big-league games before May 1. All of them were in 2022. That was the closest he’s come to a full season. He’s 28 now, and those in Suárez’s camp emphasized the importance of proving he is durable. That, more than anything, is how a lefty whose fastball won’t touch 95 mph gets paid. (He will be a free agent after the 2025 season.)

“The offseason and then having a full spring training helped me a lot to get where I’m at today,” Suárez said through a team interpreter. “I had 100-and-something pitches, and I think it’s because of that. I felt very good.”

Suárez finished the eighth inning at 89 pitches. In the middle of the eighth, César Ramos ambled toward the bullpen phone. The coach waited 90 seconds for a call. It did not ring. Manager Rob Thomson had followed Suárez down the dugout steps to ask him if he was good to go.

“I said I was,” Suárez said. “And he asked me to finish the game, and that I did.”

At 8:36 p.m. ET, Kid Cudi’s “Mr. Rager” blasted on the Citizens Bank Park speakers for the second time Tuesday night.

“When I heard my song once again in the ninth, my whole body was shaking,” Suárez said. “I had a lot of time without feeling that way.”

“That just kind of gives you butterflies as a player,” Realmuto said. “Just being able to be a part of a moment like that, and makes you really want to get it done.”

The bullpen phone rang at 8:37 p.m. A reliever didn’t begin to warm until Suárez’s 98th pitch. The Phillies pushed him. No Phillies starter had thrown 112 pitches in a game this early in a season since Vince Velasquez’s 16-strikeout game in 2016.

It meant something to Suárez. He fielded the 27th out, flipped it in his trademark apathetic way to Harper, and later stuffed the final ball in his back pocket. He struck out eight Rockies and walked one.

Bryson Stott and Brandon Marsh douse Ranger Suárez after he shut out the Rockies. (Kyle Ross / USA Today)

A shutout in April is just that. Nothing more, nothing less. The Phillies have seen Suárez dominant for prolonged stretches before. They want to see him do it for seven months. Sometimes, Phillies officials have wondered about Suárez’s diligence. He was not the best worker. The stress-free attitude had its limitations. But maybe that’s because throwing a baseball feels so natural to him; Suárez once struck out 78 and walked one as an 18-year-old in summer rookie ball.

He has slowly shed labels — the toughest thing to do in this sport. He wasn’t a top prospect, then learned how to throw harder. He was a “tweener,” maybe destined for a bullpen role, then proved he could navigate through an opposing lineup three times. He was a back-of-the-rotation starter who rose with more consistent outings. The Phillies trusted him to go deeper last postseason than they did in the previous one.

The next jump is the most challenging. It will require pinpoint focus.

“The days that his command is there and he’s getting ahead of guys, he has so many weapons,” Realmuto said. “So many ways to put guys away. His fastball is plus. He throws two different fastballs. All the offspeed pitches. He can just do so many things when he’s throwing strikes. It’s when he gets behind, that’s when he has trouble. So, for me, it’s all about command. Because the stuff is always there.”

So, here is Suárez, a Phillies employee since he was 16 and signed for $25,000. He’s had as good of a beginning to his year as anyone in baseball. It’s all sitting there for him. He needed 23 pitches — his most stressful inning — to record the final three outs Tuesday night. He teetered.

He finished it.

“​​I stayed focused and felt good in that ninth inning,” Suárez said. “I don’t think that being tired is something that’s going to be on your mind when you’re on your way to a shutout in the ninth inning.”

(Top photo of J.T. Realmuto and Ranger Suárez: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)