The Phillies didn't sign Matt Strahm to be a long reliever, but when opportunity knocks ...
Strahm started Friday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays and pitched two scoreless innings in an 8-1 win. Facing a high-powered lineup featuring George Springer, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Brandon Belt and Whit Merrifield, Strahm put just one man on base and struck out four. He was spotless after a leadoff single by Springer.
The Phillies want Strahm to leave camp stretched out to pitch multiple innings and there are several reasons why:
• When spring training began, Andrew Painter was locked in a battle with Bailey Falter for the Phillies' final rotation spot. Had Painter won the job, Falter would have been in play as the long man, but Painter's elbow sprain gave the job to Falter, who allowed one run over five innings in the Phillies' other split-squad game against the Blue Jays Friday.
• Cristopher Sanchez had been discussed throughout the spring as a candidate in that rotation battle but he has been slowed by back and hamstring injuries and has yet to pitch more than an inning.
• Nick Nelson, the Phillies' long reliever last year, is also dealing with a hamstring injury that will sideline him to begin the regular season.
• Michael Plassmeyer, a lefty with the stamina to start or pitch bulk innings in relief, might be needed in the season-opening rotation since Ranger Suarez has been slowed in camp by a minor forearm injury.
There are seven locks in the Phils' bullpen: Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, Strahm, Andrew Bellatti and Connor Brogdon. The final spot could go to Yunior Marte, a hard-throwing right-hander acquired from the Giants this offseason.
Only a few of those eight relievers are equipped to pitch more than an inning. Brogdon did it 15 times in 2021 and four times last season, including two playoff appearances of two-plus innings. Bellatti did it four times last season, struggling twice.
Strahm is in a bit of a different spot. He started 16 games for the Padres in 2019, throwing 114⅔ innings as a reliever and starter. These weren't opener appearances -- he had 12 starts of at least five innings that year.
Signed to a two-year, $15 million contract early in the offseason, Strahm is willing to pitch in whatever role the Phillies assign, whether it's a lefty-lefty matchup, high-leverage work in the later innings or a multi-inning appearance in the middle of a game.
"Whenever anyone asks, I just say I'm a pitcher," he said earlier this spring. "I'm here to win. I don't care about role, I just care about us holding that trophy at the end of the year. If that means I'm the mop-up man, I'm the mop-up man, but at least it means I'm the mop-up man for a championship team. I've got no cares, just throw the ball."
The 31-year-old Strahm is excited to enter a season pain-free. He tore the patellar tendon in 2017 and spent every offseason until this past one focusing on rehab and strengthening that left knee. He had a 3.83 ERA with 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings for the 2022 Red Sox and has a chance to be even more effective this season.
"Ever since 2017 when I blew out my left knee, it's kind of been a bumpy road and I never felt like I had my legs under me," he said. "Even last year, I didn't feel like I had my legs completely under me because my offseason was more about rehab than getting ready for a season. It was more so about getting healthy for a season.
"I feel like I'm 19 again."