Evan Phillips knew the day was coming, but he didn’t expect the call Saturday night.
The reliever’s breakthrough campaign earned him a spot in the ever-changing Braves bullpen. Phillips, a 17th-round draft pick in 2015, has exceeded expectations and will have the opportunity to secure a permanent role in the majors.
“It meant everything,” Phillips said. “I don’t want to say I was expecting it, I was just trying to work on my craft down there in (Triple-A) Gwinnett. I was trying to be ready whenever that call did come, and I was happy it did.”
Phillips, 23, had a 2.31 ERA (nine earned runs in 35 innings) in 26 relief outings with Gwinnett. He posted 12.86 strikeouts per nine innings, fourth best in the International League, while appearing in the ninth-most games.
A Maryland native, Phillips spent most of his life in Raleigh, North Carolina. He pitched collegiately at UNC-Wilmington, where he was lauded for fastball command but didn’t stand out with his secondary pitches.
Phillips posted a 5.07 ERA in college. He earned a 4.56 ERA while striking out 53 and walking 26 in 51-1/3 innings his final season.
The Braves took a mid-round flier on him that’s proven shrewd. Phillips posted a collective 2.88 ERA across four minor-league levels in his first two seasons in the system. But 2017 was less impressive: He had an 8.14 ERA Double-A (21 innings), and only shrank that mark to 4.75 with Gwinnett in 30-1/3 frames.
But Phillips put it together this season, proving he’s closer to what he showed in the lower levels than the lackluster production last season. He credited his health and conditioning, along with consistent playing time, for his break out.
“When he signed he had a big-league fastball, and he’s had to do some work on his breaking ball and obviously he has,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We liked him in spring. His name has come up from the get-go really. He’s been on the radar and he’s not a kid or anything. We’ll see. It’s good that we have someone down there who’s ours that we can bring up, and you never know. You bring up and guy like that with stuff, put him in this situation and shoot, you might find somebody.”
The Braves sit atop the National League East largely thanks to unexpected contributors. Even in the bullpen, Dan Winkler and Shane Carle have out-performed modest expectations.
And while Phillips’ situation has the feel of another underdog story, he’s never seen it that way.
“I always believed it,” Phillips said when asked if there was a moment he realized the majors were a realistic proposition. “The cliche, I always believed I could be a big leaguer and I dreamed about it my whole life. When things really start clicking for yourself, you start feeling confident. When things are rolling on the mound, you really don’t have to overwork yourself when you’re pitching.
“I really thought it was a possibility at the beginning of this year when I really got the ball rolling. I had to look in the mirror and tell myself, ‘Hey, this might happen one day.’ I got really excited and I’m just going to keep working hard and let the pieces fall as they may.”
The Braves bullpen could use his help. Their relievers have posted a 4.07 ERA over 270 innings, and with the trade deadline just over a month away, spectators consider the bullpen the Braves’ biggest need.
Perhaps they can address that internally with Phillips, who hadn’t been watching the team’s growing need for relief help.
“I didn’t look into what was happening up here for me to get up there,” he said. “I just had to earn my way up there. Every day when I was down there in Gwinnett, I just worked on what I had to do. And I figured as long as I’m doing those things, I’d be able to come up in Atlanta and try to help the team win.”
Phillips expected eight family and friends to attend his first game Sunday, regardless of whether he’d pitch. Among those in attendance was his mother, who received the first call after Phillips learned he’d become a major leaguer after Saturday’s game.
“I called my mom first,” he said. “I had to give her that one. She brought me into the world and tears immediately rolled down both of our faces. I wish I could’ve seen her reaction, but I’ll be able to see her (Sunday) so I’m excited.”