Paul Hagen: Phillies feeling strain on left side of bullpen

Posted: August 12, 2010

SHANE VICTORINO is rehabbing. Chase Utley has been cleared to swing a bat. Each passing day, presumably, brings Ryan Howard closer to the day he will rejoin the lineup.

Just as the fans in Mudville were certain that everything would be just fine if only Mighty Casey could get one more at-bat, the Phillies faithful have commited a large percentage of their postseason dreams on getting the disabled centerfielder, second baseman and first baseman back soon.

Trouble is, just because a team plugs one hole doesn't mean it won't spring a leak somewhere else.

So Charlie Manuel was sitting in the dugout, shaded from the searing afternoon heat yesterday, while fielding pointed questions about the recent ineffectiveness of both his lefty relievers, veteran J.C. Romero and still-learning Antonio Bastardo.

And that was even before Ross Gload had to leave the game with a strained right groin while legging out a double in the sixth inning during the Phillies' 2-0 win over the Dodgers down in South Philly.

The manager almost never concedes there's a cloud on the horizon, even in the middle of a rain delay. It's his way of radiating the aura that everything will turn out just fine. More often than not, it does. So his responses to a couple of queries, delivered in his usual matter-of-fact tone, were notable.

Q. Are you worried your lefthanded relief?

A. "Yeah. Yeah. I'm concerned about it, yeah."

Q. Can you win with what you have?

A. "We can try. That's what you do all the time."

There was a lot of discussion in the days leading up to the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline about whether the Phillies should focus on strengthening the bullpen or the rotation. They ended up opting to get righthander Roy Oswalt from the Astros, stretching themselves both monetarily and prospect-wise to do it. And Oswalt demonstrated why last night with seven shutout innings. Romero and Bastardo remained seated in the bullpen.

Stressing that he was speaking only for himself and not for management, Manuel said he felt at the time that the team "needed help in both places." He conceded that, forced to choose, he would have taken the starter and added, "[Lefthanded relievers] are hard to find. Those are real hard to find. I think everybody in baseball looks for those. I'm sure we're always looking for somebody. We're always talking about it."

We interrupt this column for the following special announcement . . .

The Baltimore Orioles have placed lefthanded closer Mike Gonzalez on waivers, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Now, to be sure, teams routinely try to get players through waivers after the deadline. It could mean the O's are hoping somebody takes him and the remainder of his contract. It could be that they're dangling him out there to gauge what kind of trade value he might have. Or it could mean nothing at all.

If the Phillies put in a claim, they could be on the hook for approximately $1.5 million this season and another $6 million in 2011. If they make a waiver trade, they would have to dig even deeper into an already-depleted farm system and still increase the payroll. Either way, it would be a test of what extremes they're willing to go to try to make the World Series for a third straight year.

On the plus side, Gonzalez has pitched well in nine games since coming off the disabled list with shoulder problems. He has a 2.00 ERA with a .194 batting average against him in those games. In his career, the 32-year-old has held lefthanded hitters to a .210 average. Since he's had experience as a closer, he could be an insurance policy if Brad Lidge falters.

The Phillies aren't going to talk about it, of course. Speaking generally, assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said, "This time of year it's difficult to make those kinds of moves. We're always looking to make the club better."

Important as it is for the Phillies to get their lineup healthy, that might not be enough if they can't get Romero and Bastardo straightened out . . . or find somebody to get the job done.

Romero said yesterday he's healthy. That came less than 24 hours after he made some vague comments about discomfort in his arm. Regardless, he has a 10.50 ERA in his last 12 games with eight walks in six innings.

Bastardo, 24, was thrown into a 15-9 blowout Tuesday night and was hit hard. Proefrock noted that it was an unusual situation and suggested that he should be given a mulligan.

But Manuel, noting the difference between his numbers in the majors (5.54 ERA) and Triple A Lehigh Valley (0.00) offered a more unflinching explanation.

"Better hitters is the only thing I can say," the manager said bluntly. "If you stop and think about it, there's a big difference between here and Triple A. You're seeing better hitters as a whole. From the top of the order down to the sixth, seventh hole in the lineup, at the major league level, you're facing quality, top-notch hitters."

Sometimes when one door closes, another opens. Sometimes, too, when one problem appears to be on the verge of a solution, others crop up.

And if the Phillies can't figure out their lefthanded relief issues, they might not have to worry about the playoffs at all.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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