With the score tied in the fifth inning of Monday’s game, the Toronto Blue Jays turned to their veteran reliever to shut down the top of a destructive New York Yankees order.
Pitching out of the wind-up — a souvenir from his days as a starter — David Phelps started DJ LeMahieu with a sinker up and in for a strike. Once he retired LeMahieu, Phelps cracked out the knuckle curve to Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, eventually getting him to ground out.
The Blue Jays bullpen calls Phelps "The Professor," and it’s easy to see why. Through his five outs of work Monday, the right-hander utilized five different pitches — the sinker, the four-seamer, the knuckle curve, the changeup and the cutter. Phelps has a deep arsenal and he’s surgical in how he uses it every time out, favouring precision over velocity and efficiency over devastation.
“He’s a true pitcher. He commands all of his pitches,” Blue Jays reliever Trent Thornton said of Phelps. “He just goes in and paints, front-door cutters, back-door two-seamers, stuff like that.
“People nowadays I feel like just grip it and rip it, let the ball move on its own. But he's very meticulous with what he's trying to do and set up hitters. It’s pretty cool to watch him pitch.”
At 35 years old, Phelps is the oldest player on a dynamic Blue Jays team, but he’s not out of place. Re-signed by Toronto on a minor-league deal after a lat injury stole his 2021 season, Phelps broke camp with the team and has thrived in a matchup-proof utility role out of the ‘pen. He’s shown his value on the field with a 2.70 ERA and 10 strikeouts through 10 innings, but he’s an even greater resource in the clubhouse.
“I've been through so many things, whether it’s injuries, situations,” Phelps said. “Hopefully I can lend a calming presence or, if a guy needs to talk or just vent, just an ear. It's just hopefully some stability.”
Phelps offers a plethora of wisdom to younger guys on the team, and that education begins on the mound. Thornton recalls a recent conversation with his elder teammate about delivery towards the plate and how that affects pitch movement.
“He's been around for 10-plus years now and knows what he's talking about,” Thornton said. “Ask anybody in the bullpen, they go to him for any advice, and he's always open arms. Gives you an honest answer, as well.
“I could go on and on about how much I just love Phelpsy. He’s one of a kind, really.”
Phelps is happy to explain his craft to anyone who asks, but he’s equally insightful with lifestyle advice. The travel and pace of pro baseball aren’t exactly ideal for players with families, and Phelps, who has four kids himself, wants teammates to come to him with questions about how to handle “everything under the sun.”
That layered experience makes Phelps “the perfect veteran,” bullpen coach Matt Buschmann said. Phelps is also just a great dude, which is important because the bullpen is the only group in baseball that spends all nine innings together every game.
“He just mixes so well with the other personalities,” Buschmann said. “But he just genuinely cares about the people, and he's sarcastic in all the right ways. I think he just brings a calming presence, so everyone kind of looks to him when it comes to [certain] situations.”
As the most experienced player on the roster, Phelps is also blessed with an acute sense of perspective. He’s played for seven different clubs; he’s been traded, sent down, taken bus rides and long flights. Phelps has seen almost everything in baseball, including how this young Blue Jays team has blossomed into a playoff contender before his very eyes.
“From where it was when I was first here in 2019, on an almost 100-loss team, to where it's come now is just incredible,” he said.
In 2019, all-stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette were just getting their feet wet in the majors. Now those two young men are the driving force behind a roster oozing with talent, and Phelps is hoping to ride that wave back to the postseason. He got a taste of some playoff electricity in his rookie season with the Yankees back in 2012, and he’s been “scratching and clawing” to get back since.
“I feel like I got traded at every deadline to a contender and we always came up short,” Phelps said. “It was one of the more attractive reasons to come back [to Toronto], not only the people, but just what this group can do.”
While the Blue Jays’ goal is to win a World Series this year, Phelps has some ideas of what he wants to do when his time in the majors runs out.
“This game has given me so much and it's meant so much to me that I definitely want to give back in some way,” he said. “I definitely see myself coaching on the amateur side far more than the pro side.”
If he does become a coach one day, Phelps would take "The Professor" moniker to a whole new level. Still, he’s not 100 per cent sure what he’ll do. His first priority is his family, and after that, everything else will fall into place.
“Spending time with my family obviously is just the biggest,” Phelps said. “I have a seven-year-old son, and if he wants to play baseball, it's great. But whatever he's interested in doing, I’m doing it with him.”
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