Evan Phillips walks off the field a couple of hours before the first pitch at Coolray Field, batting practice slowly winding down, and takes a few steps down into the dugout.
Then he notices a reporter waiting — not just waiting, but waiting for him.
“No one really talks to me,” the 23-year old relief pitcher said with a surprised tone.
That seems perhaps more apt for Evan Phillips of yesteryears, a pitcher who entered his 2018 season with the Gwinnett Stripers with a career 4.11 ERA. This season, with refined fastball command and a simplified approach, Phillips is the topic of conversation from Triple-A Gwinnett to SunTrust Park.
He came into Tuesday’s game with a 1.64 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 33 innings. Suddenly, in just a few months, Phillips has gone from organizational afterthought to a serious major league bullpen option.
“No big revelations,” Phillips said Tuesday afternoon on what has changed. “If there is anything mechanical, it’s more of a simplification process. I’m just out there trying to keep everything relaxed, simple. I guess the most mechanical thing I could say is keeping a shorter arm path, which leads to more consistency at the release point.”
What has changed, he said, is his comfortability. Off the mound, he’s been pleased to live within driving distance of family in Durham, Charlotte, and Norfolk, in addition to his home in Raleigh. On the mound, he’s found comfort in the rhythm of his approach, his feel.
For Phillips, it all starts with the fastball. Gwinnett Stripers catcher Chris Stewart estimates that Phillips throws his fastball 90 percent of his pitches.
“Obviously he’s got an incredible spin rate because he gets a lot of swing-throughs,” Stewart said. “Guys don’t hit it, they don’t put it in play, and when they do it’s not in play very hard.”
While he has maintained the velocity that makes it such a difficult pitch for hitters, the key to his dominance this season has been honing his command. His WHIP — a statistic that measures walks/hits per innings pitched — is the lowest he’s had in his entire career, currently at 1.03.
When he commands his fastball, Phillips said, it unlocks the key to his entire approach.
“Aggressive would be the first work that comes to mind,” Phillips said. “I talk about my strategy on the mound is to strike the guy out or induce weak contact. And as a relief pitcher, I think if I do one of those two things I’m doing my job. I can’t do either of those two things if I’m walking guys or not throwing strikes.”
Added Stewart: “He’s going to go out there and say, ‘Hey, here’s my best stuff, try to hit it. Attack the guy from there.’ ”
It’s an approach, some might plea, that would suit well in the major league bullpen. He said his family “goes crazy” over the speculation. It’s a possibility Phillips has thought about — he’s only human, after all. But he doesn’t allow himself to dwell on it.
“Even if that day were to come, I really want to focus on what I’m doing here,” Phillips said. “I’m here for a reason — I’m in the minor leagues for a reason. I know there’s things I need to do to continue to develop.
“I don’t want to say I’m not in a rush or anything — of course I’d love to be there, I’d love to be able to help the team win. It’s been my dream since I could walk. While I’m here, I want to continue to hone my skills and continue to develop as a pitcher.”
With that, he walks back through the dugout, down the steps toward the clubhouse. For now, Phillips can remain relatively anonymous.
But if he keeps this pace, he won’t be surprised by curious reporters much longer.
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