ST. LOUIS — Rob Thomson remarked last weekend that for the Phillies to get where they want to go in 2023, they need Seranthony Dominguez to be one of their top right-handed relievers, the version of himself that dominated in October a year ago.
Dominguez pitched well Tuesday against the Braves and Friday in St. Louis but allowed a go-ahead or game-tying home run Sunday for the third time in his last five outings. Cardinals rookie Jordan Walker took him deep with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game the Phillies lost, 6-5.
"It wasn't one of Ser's best sinkers," catcher J.T. Realmuto said. "Going back on it, maybe we could've gone somewhere else. Obviously, he was ready for a fastball there. The kid's a good hitter, he put a good swing on it. Just unfortunate that it happened there."
Dominguez had a 1.57 ERA in mid-September a year ago. In the playoffs, he posted a 1.69 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 10⅔ innings. This season hasn't been as smooth. He's blown seven saves with five losses and hasn't had as much finish on his pitches as usual since mid-August, with the swinging strike rates on his fastball and slider well down.
That wasn't the case Friday, when he hit the first batter he faced before retiring three in a row, two on strikeouts.
"I think his stuff has gotten better," Realmuto said. "Definitely his slider, his last outing was the best I've seen it in a couple months. That was encouraging to see."
The Phillies never trailed in their wins Friday or Saturday and came back Sunday from an early three-run deficit and a late two-run deficit. They took advantage of sloppy infield defense from the Cardinals to score three in the top of the fourth. Nick Castellanos tied the game with an RBI single in the eighth, an inning that began with Alec Bohm's 17th home run of the season.
The Phils had another chance to tie or take a lead in the ninth inning when Bohm walked and Bryson Stott singled with one out. Realmuto struck out on three pitches and Johan Rojas flied out to end the game.
Realmuto went 0-for-8 Saturday and Sunday and is in another slump, 4-for-32 in his last eight games without an extra-base hit or walk. He's hit just .190 with runners in scoring position after hitting .279 the prior two years.
"If I had the answer, I'd probably fix it," he said. "Maybe trying to do too much in those situations, expanding the zone a little bit. I don't really have an answer for it.
"I just haven't been able to find a groove for a consistent amount of time like I usually do. I've been fighting things back and forth, haven't really gotten on a roll. Hitting is a mentality and confidence thing just as much as anything else and I haven't been able to find my confidence for a consistent amount of time this year. The confidence comes when you get hits and barrel the ball up. Even when I've been going good at the plate, I've had a lot of hard outs."
What about when he was seeing the ball best in mid-June, during the Phillies' road trip to Arizona and Oakland when Realmuto hit for the cycle and homered three times in four games? What was clicking then?
"I was getting good pitches to hit and I wasn't missing," he said. "Right now, when things aren't going well, it seems like pitchers hit their spots, and when they do tend to miss one or two in an at-bat, I tend to foul it off. Right now, I'm not capitalizing on those mistakes, I'm usually fouling them off or just missing it, and then they're making nasty pitches to get me out from there. I just have to be able to not miss those pitches and be ready for it when they leave it over the heart of the plate."
Realmuto, like Rhys Hoskins, has a leg kick in his swing. When he goes south, it is often cited by others as the reason for his struggles. But Realmuto has maintained that the leg kick has not been the source of his inconsistency this season — it's more about plate selection and missing hittable pitches.
"It's never that. That's a media thing," Realmuto said. "When I've been at my best, my leg kick is usually at its highest. My leg kick changes at-bat to at-bat, swing to swing. It's more of a rhythm thing for me. That's not the issue. I just have to be more consistent and get the barrel on the ball more often."
The Phillies also need more consistency from Taijuan Walker heading into the playoffs. Walker completed seven innings Sunday but allowed five runs — three in third, two in the fifth.
He was touched up mainly by St. Louis' two future Hall of Famers, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Goldschmidt hit a two-run double in the third inning, a solo homer in the fifth and narrowly missed a bomb to left in his first at-bat. Arenado doubled in a run in the third and singled one home in the fifth.
Walker retired the final eight hitters he faced after Arenado's RBI single as Thomson pushed him through seven innings in an effort to preserve as many important bullpen pieces as possible for the upcoming series in Atlanta.
The damage was already done, though. Walker's last quality start — at least six innings, no more than three earned runs — came on July 31. He has a 5.85 ERA in seven starts since. The Phillies are 20-9 in his outings but have lost back-to-back games behind him for the first time since the first two weeks of the season.
He did have better control against the Cardinals, walking only one batter after issuing 16 free passes in his prior 26 innings.
"I felt better today," he said. "That was the game plan, have J.T. sit middle and just try to attack the zone as much as possible.
"The numbers don't look good, five runs, but I felt like I pitched better than what it shows and I felt like I got a lot groundballs and attacked the zone today. That's what I wanted."
Walker has 15 wins and excelled in June and July with a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts, but it's unclear if he'd even pitch in the wild-card round for the Phillies. Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suarez and Cristopher Sanchez are all throwing the ball more effectively, and Thomson still believes in Aaron Nola as a big-game pitcher despite Nola's own struggles in September.
"We've still got to get there first, we've still got to finish strong," Walker said. "But we've got so many weapons and so many good starters that can go out and do well for us, and whoever doesn't can probably do well for us in the bullpen."
Despite losing Sunday, the Phillies won the series, went 5-1 against the Cardinals this season and hold a three-game lead for the top wild-card position over the Diamondbacks. The Phils also have the tiebreaker over Arizona, making it a de facto four-game lead. The D-backs swept the Cubs, who have lost five straight to fall into a tie with the Marlins for the final spot.
Next up is a three-game series in Atlanta. The Braves were swept in Miami over the weekend after clinching the NL East in Philadelphia on Wednesday. MVP frontrunner Ronald Acuña Jr. has missed consecutive games with a calf strain and his status for the series opener will be determined after a workout Monday.
"For the most part, we played pretty well, and again today, we came back," Thomson said of the series in St. Louis. "We got some fortunate breaks there in the fourth, but at least we answered. They got up three, we answered. They took the lead, we answered. We just keep coming."