Thursday, September 11, 2008

So About That Great Bullpen

Remember before the season started? All the way back in March and April? Long time ago, I know. But remember how, with Brad Lidge, Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero, it looked like the Phils would have a solid back end of the rotation, assuming Lidge was OK, Gordon stayed healthy and Romero controlled his pitches?

The questions dealt more with how Chad Durbin would adjust to being a reliever, if Ryan Madson had the makeup for the Majors and what other arms could eat up some innings. Really, heading into the season there were more questions than answers, even with Lidge, Gordon and Romero. Frankly, asking Lidge to be unhittable was not very realistic, considering his mental breakdown in Houston. Gordon has had health problems ever since he's been in Philadelphia, and Romero was waived by the Red Sox last season.

In a nutshell, the bullpen was a gigantic question mark. And then the season started. Save for Gordon's early blowup, the guys started pitching well. Really, really well. Lidge turned into his old, dominant self, Romero was the same guy the Phils picked up last year, Durbin was masterful and even Madson kept teams at bay. Sure, Gordon got hurt, but the way everyone else was performing, the suspect Phillies bullpen suddenly turned into the "best bullpen in baseball."

Only it wasn't. In fact, it never was. And we all should have known better. Granted, the Phillies bullpen was great for the majority of the season. It really was. But if your life truly depended on it, even before the recent struggles, would you trust Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson or Clay Condrey with the game on the line in a tight jam? That answer has made itself abundantly clear down the stretch, and you can add Romero to that list as well.

With Gordon, a proven (if despised) setup man, gone for the season, the Phillies never groomed anyone for that role. And over the last month or so, it has come back to haunt them. Big time. Last night was just another example. Romero suddenly looks very, very hittable, and his control issues has reared their ugly head yet again. Durbin, a man who has done a masterful job all season long, is out of bullets. There's nothing left in the tank, and he's simply getting smacked around now. Madson is a complete mess: Great one outing, horrible the next. And Condrey is what he is—an innings eater.

The only two guys that have really done their jobs have been deadline acquisition Scott Eyre and Lidge, who still remains perfect in save opportunities. But getting to him has been a complete disaster. And what's the solution? Adam Eaton? Please. God. No.

Add on top of that the struggles of Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick and J.A. Happ, and the Phils look to be doomed. Once you get past Myers, Hamels and Moyer, who can the Phils really feel good about handing the ball to save Lidge? The answer, no one. And it's their own fault for not addressing the pen with proven, reliable players on a team that had World Series aspirations. Now they're just scratching and clawing for a chance at the postseason. A chance that's quickly slipping away.

It was supposed to be the Mets' bullpen that was to implode, especially with Billy Wagner shelved for the year. The Phils were supposed to win because they had the arms in the pen to close out games. It hasn't quite worked out that way. In fact, a Mets' bullpen that has been horrendous all year has been near perfect down the stretch, while the Phillies' has been a disaster. Watching Charlie stroll to the mound to take the ball from his starter nowadays is akin to getting punched in the gut.

And speaking of Charlie, what in God's name was he thinking in the 8th inning last night? Now, he did get things off to a good start by trekking Myers back out there. Sure, he gave up a leadoff single to Luis Gonzalez, but he did get Uggla on strikes. Then with a runner on first and one out in a tie game, what are you supposed to do? Play for the double play. Therefore, the second baseman and shortstop should be at double play depth. But that's no where Utley and Rollins were stationed with Mike Jacobs at the plate. Instead, they were playing Jacobs to pull. And you know what happened? Jacobs hit a hard grounder directly to where Utley would have been had he been playing at double play depth. It would have been an easy inning-ending double play, with the game tied. Instead, it was a single that got the runner from first to third.

That's bad managing, but trust me, it gets worse. With runners on first and third and one out, what you need is a strikeout or double play. That run can't get home. Well, who's the best strikeout guy available besides Lidge? Brett Myers. The same Brett Myers who, oh by the way, just gave up two hits that would have been ground outs if the fielders were playing their normal positions. So does Charlie leave Myers in? No, he brings in a worn-out Durbin. And Durbin proceeds to give up a double, giving Florida the lead. One the Marlins wouldn't squander, thanks in large part to a 3-0 fastball right down the middle from Romero that Uggla crushed in the 9th. After that pitch, Romero got in a pissing match with Chris Coste to add even more fuel to this bullpen's exploding fire.

So right now, nothing is going right. Except for Ryan Howard, who hit another home run yesterday. Meanwhile, the Mets keep winning, and the playoffs keep getting farther and farther away. I hope we really enjoyed last year's first round sweep, because if history tells me anything, we won't be in the playoffs for another 13 or so years.

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