Phillips finding home in bullpen

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Left-hander Zach Phillips is finding a home in the bullpen this season, as he's posted a 1.21 ERA in 22.1 innings since being promoted to Double-A Frisco. Lone Star Dugout sat down with the 22-year-old to discuss the keys to his season.

Zach Phillips entered the 2008 season with High-A Bakersfield looking to continue his outstanding '07 success with Single-A Clinton. But the hurler was inconsistent in his first year with the Blaze, posting an 8-9 record and a 5.54 earned-run average.

Although opponents hit Phillips at a solid .281 clip, his biggest undoing was the 73 walks he issued in 144.2 innings. The left-hander still flashed three solid pitches, including a two-seam fastball with good life, but he wasn't able to consistently command his stuff.

The Rangers invited Phillips to Fall Instructional League after last season to make a couple of mechanical adjustments [as discussed below], and they moved him to the bullpen at the tail end of '09 Spring Training.

The changes appear to be working for Phillips.

In 44.0 innings with Bakersfield this season, the Sacramento native was simply dominant, giving up only six earned runs [1.23 ERA] on 19 hits while walking 11 and fanning 46. Phillips had an opponent batting average of .123 with the Blaze.

Since his much-deserved promotion to Double-A Frisco, Phillips has posted a sparkling 1.21 ERA over 22.1 innings. Although he's not getting hit hard [19 hits] and he's still striking out batters [18 K's], Phillips has issued 15 walks with the RoughRiders.

Phillips probably isn't attacking hitters as aggressively as he was in Bakersfield, but that's an issue that should iron itself out as he becomes more accustomed to the Double-A level. Despite the walks, he isn't getting hit because his fastball is staying down in the zone more often and his changeup continues to improve.

The 22-year-old has found a home in the bullpen, and although he's a southpaw, Phillips' changeup gives him the opportunity to be more than just a lefty specialist.

Phillips' sinker-change-curveball combination has limited Texas League righties to a .208 average against him. That doesn't mean he has been easy on lefties. Fellow left-handers went 4-for-66 with zero extra-base hits against him in Bakersfield.

Not only has Phillips' fastball command improved this season, but he has also experienced a spike in velocity. Last season with the Blaze, Phillips generally worked in the 86-88 mph range, bumping 89 and 90 on occasion. Since joining the RoughRiders, Phillips has been consistently working at 88-90 mph.

Between Phillips, Beau Jones, and Corey Young, the Rangers have a trio of lefty relief prospects at Double-A Frisco, and all three have the stuff to pitch in the big leagues.

Lone Star Dugout spoke with Phillips about his outstanding 2009 season to date.

Jason Cole: By the numbers, you were nothing short of dominant in Bakersfield this season. How did you feel you threw there?

Zach Phillips: I felt like I threw real good in Bakersfield. I only had a few walks, which is always a plus for me. I felt like I attacked hitters pretty good—pretty much the best I could. It showed up in the way I pitched.

Cole: Last year you went through your ups-and-downs in Bakersfield, and I guess you could call this season your breakout year. What is leading to it?

Phillips: I don't know if that's being in the bullpen and my arm feeling better out of it or just my velocity going up. Mindset is also—just going after hitters and attacking. Just trusting my stuff pretty much, and knowing that I can get guys out.

Cole: Even though you've been out of the bullpen for most of the season, you made three starts with Bakersfield and pitched well—and deep into the game—in all of them. Have you ever had to make that quick transition from reliever to starter in the past?

Phillips: Definitely not. This is pretty much the first year that I've actually been in the bullpen. Going to the bullpen and then starting and then back to the bullpen, the only difference to me was pretty much getting my arm loose quicker. That's about it. I've done that for many years, so I'm used to that.

Cole: Because you did pitch so well as a reliever for Bakersfield, did you feel the spot starts took you out of your rhythm at all?

Phillips: When they first asked me to spot start, it was a little change. But it still pretty much didn't change the way I pitch at all. I went out there and attacked hitters and tried to get deep in the game for when I did spot start.

Cole: You began the season in the bullpen. At what point did the Rangers say that you'd be a reliever?

Phillips: Danny Clark told me I was going to be in the bullpen on the second to last day of Spring Training. That's all they told me. They didn't say anything else.

Cole: I guess it's safe to assume that relieving is now a full-time deal for you. Is that the case?

Phillips: As of right now, I'm relieving. That's all they told me.

Cole: During Spring Training, they'll often build the starters' innings up as camp progresses, and relievers will just throw one or two innings each outing. Which group were you in?

Phillips: I was both. I did both in Spring Training. I started and threw three innings and I was used in relief and threw one or two innings. I did both. I guess they were just testing me out there.

Cole: I know you made some mechanical changes during instructs last year. What exactly were the adjustments?

Phillips: Out of the windup, I go full windup over my head. That's pretty much it in the windup, just going over my head. Out of the stretch, I'm much quicker with my leg kick. It's pretty much just up to my waist and that's it. Just get it down, get down the hill, and be quick to the plate.

Cole: Has the quicker leg kick out of the stretch helped you hold runners?

Phillips: Yeah, it helps a lot. Actually, I'm not sure if anyone has even stolen a base off me this year. That's good. I think I'm really, really fast to the plate.

Cole: Are you still going out of the full windup as a reliever?

Phillips: Yeah, definitely.

Cole: How do you feel about your performance since you were promoted to Frisco?

Phillips: I've pitched okay so far. Not to my full potential. That's my main goal—cut down on the walks a lot. I think everything will show if I do that.

Cole: It really seems like, with each season, your changeup improves a little bit more, and it has become an excellent pitch for you. How do you feel about it this season?

Phillips: I think the changeup goes with whenever I pound the zone with my fastball. I think that makes my changeup that much better. I have good feel for it. I think it's just pounding the zone in and out and the changeup does the work for itself.

Cole: Do you throw any changeups against left-handed hitters or do you save those for righties?

Phillips: Very few. Mostly when I start. I haven't done that out of the ‘pen yet this year, but when I start, I'll do it.

Cole: You've always been known for your good curveball. Talk about the role that pitch has played for you this year.

Phillips: I feel like I can throw it in any count. I feel good with it. You've got to throw it in the right spot in the count too. You can't just throw a first-pitch curveball in the dirt every time. You've got to be able to throw it for strikes and back off sometimes and throw it harder sometimes, too.

Cole: You're getting more ground balls this year, you've allowed fewer hits, and just one home run this year. Are you working your two-seamer down in the zone more often?

Phillips: I'd say down more, yeah. Just getting it over the plate and down and letting the two-seamer do work for itself. That has helped me.

Cole: Earlier you mentioned going over your head in the windup. What exactly has that helped, and has it played a role in your success this year?

Phillips: Yeah. I'm kind of a rhythm guy. Whenever I get into a rhythm, that's where I need to be. Going over the head definitely feels like a rhythm to me and I feel like I can actually repeat it every time. That helps me a lot.

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