Phillies' postseason remedy for relief uncertain

Brad Lidge, who struggled as the closer this year, might have to settle for another role in postseason.
Brad Lidge, who struggled as the closer this year, might have to settle for another role in postseason.
Posted: October 07, 2009

THEY FEATURED two pitchers with the capability of starting the first game of a playoff series.

They suffered through a season plagued by injury and inconsistency, using 22 pitchers in the process.

They entered the playoffs with two starting pitchers available for bullpen use and a question mark at closer.

They were . . . the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

When Charlie Manuel sat in the front of a conference room yesterday afternoon and told a television audience that, in essence, he had no idea what exactly he would do with his pitching staff, you may have thought he was entering a realm devoid of historical parallels.

But while Manuel's plan - to send lefthander J.A. Happ and righthander Joe Blanton, arguably the team's most consistent starters during the regular season, to the bullpen for the first two games of the NLDS before deciding on a Game 3 starter - might be unconventional, it is not without precedent.

And, with a bullpen that finished the season with a 3.91 ERA (tied for 13th in the majors) and blew 32 percent of its save opportunities (12th), the Phillies believe it is a necessity.

"We had some tough decisions," Manuel said, "and we want to set our pitching and our team up to give us the best possible chance of winning that we feel like."

There is no denying the role that a bullpen plays in postseason success.

Of the last 16 teams to appear in the World Series, only four finished the regular season outside the Top 10 in the majors in bullpen ERA.

Of the last 16 teams to appear in the World Series, only three finished the regular season having blown more than 30 percent of their saves.

Last year, thanks in large part to Brad Lidge's perfect 41-for-41 record in save attempts and a healthy fleet of arms in front of him, the Phillies finished second in the majors with a 3.22 bullpen ERA and third with a 76 save-completion percentage.

This year, however, they face the polar opposite. Top lefthanded reliever J.C. Romero, who allowed one run while appearing in 11 of the Phillies' 13 postseason games last year, will have season-ending elbow surgery today and miss 5 to 6 months. Righthander Chan Ho Park, who posted a 2.52 ERA in 38 relief appearances during the regular season, has a strained hamstring and will not return until after the NLDS, if at all.

Lefty specialist Scott Eyre, who finished the regular season with a 1.50 ERA in 42 appearances, has a loose body in his pitching elbow that will likely require offseason surgery. Both Eyre and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he should be able to carry a normal workload in the NLDS, including pitching back-to-back days, but his health is far from a certainty. The same goes for righthander Brett Myers, who was effective as a closer in the 2007 season and has back-of-the-bullpen potential when healthy. Myers pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his first four appearances off the disabled list in September, but a lat strain (back/shoulder) shut him down for 3 weeks and he has allowed two runs and four hits in 2 1/3 innings since.

Even the healthy relievers have question marks: Rookie Antonio Bastardo, the bullpen's only other lefty, made just one relief appearance this season. Veteran Chad Durbin, who led the team in innings last season, posted a 4.88 ERA in his first 53 outings this year but threw seven scoreless innings in his last six appearances.

Righthander Kyle Kendrick made two pivotal long-relief appearances in September, but logged just seven relief appearances for the Phillies in the regular season while spending most of the year as a starter in the minors.

Lidge, meanwhile, went from zero blown saves and a 1.95 ERA in 2008 to 11 blown saves and a 7.21 ERA in 2009.

Who will the closer be?

"Whoever you see walking out there," Manuel said.

Only Ryan Madson, who converted 10 of 14 last-inning save opportunities in relief of Lidge and finished with a 3.26 ERA, is a known quantity.

"You try to create as much depth as you can," Amaro said. "Sometimes you don't have it. I would feel much better if Chan Ho was healthy. I think he was a big piece of this club, especially when we shifted him into the bullpen . . . He was awfully good. Not having him available, that's probably one of the reasons we've created a situation where Blanton maybe could fill in [with] that role, maybe Happ can fit into that role."

Which brings us to "The Plan."

Or, perhaps more accurately, The Situation.

Happ, who went 2-0 with a 2.49 ERA in 12 relief appearances before moving into the rotation and going 10-4 with a 2.99 ERA, would provide another lefthanded arm in the bullpen in Games 1 and 2 while providing Manuel with what he feels is a good option for the eighth or ninth innings of a tight game. Blanton, who went 12-8 with a 4.05 ERA in 31 starts this season, could be an option in both multiple-inning situations and in the eighth or ninth innings.

At least one of the two will be needed as a starter during this series. In fact, Manuel said, there is a "big chance" both would start. Veteran righthander Pedro Martinez, whose role Manuel did not clearly define yesterday, is also available to start.

But, Manuel said, the exact rotation will depend on how he uses Blanton and Happ in relief, "Because they're going to get in the game, and more likely I'm talking about later on in the game."

Both Blanton and Happ have pitched postseason relief before. Blanton threw two scoreless innings in the 2006 ALCS for Oakland. Happ allowed one run in three innings against the Dodgers in the NLCS last season.

Neither man, of course, has seen action as both a reliever and a starter in the same playoff series. But it would not be the first time that happened.

In 2001, Diamondbacks righthander Miguel Batista appeared as a reliever in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, throwing 12 pitches to three batters. Two days later, he started Game 3, allowing two runs on three hits in six innings and picking up the win. He also made one relief appearance and one start in the NLCS, and again in the World Series. Lefty Brian Anderson, meanwhile, made three relief appearances for the Diamondbacks in the '01 NLDS and NLCS and then started a game in the World Series.

The Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the World Series that season, thanks in large part to the contributions of ace starters Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Will the Phillies, who have used 22 pitchers this season, encounter the same success? Or will their attempt backfire?

"This is the playoffs," said Happ, who pitched a shutout against the Rockies in August. "We're going to do whatever we have to do."

"Whatever happens, I'll be ready," Blanton said. "It doesn't matter."

The Phillies' fate could hang in the balance.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese

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