Bob Ford: Bullpen will determine series

J.A. Happ walks off after finishing the sixth inning in relief of Chad Durbin, who relieved Cole Hamels earlier in the inning.
J.A. Happ walks off after finishing the sixth inning in relief of Chad Durbin, who relieved Cole Hamels earlier in the inning.
Posted: October 16, 2009

LOS ANGELES - By the time the sun fell behind the third-base side of Dodger Stadium in the middle innings of last night's game and a smoky haze drifted into the park, it became clear that the opener of the National League Championship Series would be a game won or lost by the bullpens.

For most of this season, the Phillies had an expression for those games: Uh-oh.

But that was before Charlie Manuel stopped waiting for the bullpen to fix itself from within and entered the postseason with a whatever-works formula that involved borrowing J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton from the starting rotation.

Manuel and the Phillies were able to tiptoe through the division series against Colorado, with the unexpected bonus of two Brad Lidge saves in the final games of the series. If Manuel misstepped in Game 2 against the Rockies when he used both Happ and Blanton in a loss, he was bailed out by a Denver snowstorm that put his rotation back in order.

Well, here we are in the next round, and the stakes are higher, and the Phillies are still trying to rob the starting rotation to pay the bullpen. It's dangerous work, but Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee are convinced it is the only way this team can get to where it got in 2008.

Last night against the Dodgers, the first act played out as both starting pitchers faded in the middle of the game, with the Phillies left holding a one-run lead when the haze parted at the end of the sixth inning, and the bullpens had taken control of the evening.

Cole Hamels struggled early, settled down briefly and then gave up three runs in the fifth inning, highlighted by a Manny Ramirez two-run home run that would have rattled off the San Gabriel Mountains if the left-field stands hadn't gotten in the way.

Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' starter, gave up all five of his runs in a fifth-inning implosion that featured an NLCS-record three wild pitches and a three-run home run by Carlos Ruiz that landed in Mannywood. Whoever caught the ball in there kept it anyway.

It might be that Manuel stayed a few moments too long with Hamels, but he has to be forgiven for erring on the side of sticking with the starters. It took Chad Durbin and Happ to get Hamels out of a sixth-inning jam without forfeiting the Phils' tenuous lead.

Joe Torre certainly stayed with Kershaw too long. After a single, walk, and a home run opened the fifth, Kershaw walked Hamels on four pitches, bouncing a few to the plate along the way. It seemed reasonable, certainly as good as the Los Angeles bullpen had been, to dip into it right then. But Torre let Kershaw give up another two runs before getting him out of there, and the Phillies had their four-run lead.

Once fully into the bullpen, Manuel kept playing cards with the devil and getting away with it. He didn't double-switch when Happ came in and took him from the game for a pinch-hitter after facing just two batters.

Then came Antonio Bastardo to give up a leadoff double in the seventh, and Chan Ho Park, who hadn't pitched since Sept. 16, to clean up that mess.

That should have been the last serious move Manuel had to make, because the Dodgers' bullpen suffered its own meltdown in the eighth inning when reliable lefthander George Sherrill walked two batters and gave up a three-run home run to Raul Ibanez.

With a four-run lead and just six outs to get, the Phillies should have been off the hook. But that isn't the way this season has gone, is it?

If Manuel was looking for an easy eighth from Ryan Madson and perhaps a no-pressure ninth from Lidge, he wasn't counting on Madson allowing three hits to begin the eighth. That cut the lead to three runs, brought the tying run to the plate and brought Dubee out of the dugout for a conference as lefthander Scott Eyre and then Lidge began to warm up in the bullpen. Madson gave up one more on a fly ball to make it an 8-6 game, and then Manuel held his breath and went with Lidge in the ninth.

It wasn't a pretty save, but it was a save, and Manuel keeps picking the right cards from the deck. So far.

"We had enough to get by. Tonight, Lidge was going to be the guy," Manuel said. "If you had to pin it down to one closer, it's always been Lidge."

It apparently is going to be this way a lot in the series, and today's Game 2 will be even more interesting because there is no guarantee Pedro Martinez can get the Phillies very far into the game. That's the scenario the snow in Denver allowed Manuel to avoid and now, because he felt he needed Happ and Blanton in the bullpen, it is no longer avoidable.

As said before, it is a difficult way to win consistently, all this mixing and matching and nightly decisions on little more than gut feel, but it is the path the Phillies have chosen. It isn't going to work every night.

Last night it did, though, and last night was big.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his blog at http://philly.com/postpatterns.

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