Bob Ford: Bad start, bad finish, bad situation

Chad Durbin reacts after walking Edgar Renteria. Durbin allowed two runs in the sixth inning.
Chad Durbin reacts after walking Edgar Renteria. Durbin allowed two runs in the sixth inning.
Posted: October 21, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - A good sign that a baseball game has gone through the looking glass is when a starter is finishing a game he didn't start.

That happened Wednesday night with the Phillies in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in a 6-5 loss to the Giants that had neither a good start nor a good finish.

The Phils didn't get the innings they needed out of Joe Blanton, went deep and unsuccessfully into their bullpen, and then turned to Roy Oswalt, who is scheduled to start Game 6, for a stopgap inning. It didn't turn out to be a full inning, and it didn't stop the Giants.

Whether it also messed up Oswalt for his regular turn is unknown. It could be moot conjecture if the Phillies don't win Thursday, as they send Roy Halladay to the mound. One more loss and their hope of reaching the World Series for a third straight season will be gone.

"If we like playing with our backs to the wall, we're standing right there now," manager Charlie Manuel said. "If we want to have our backs to the wall, I think we're going to get that chance."

After three games of neat and efficient, if slightly quiet baseball, the series got very messy on Wednesday. The game became a test of which team would make fewer mistakes, throw fewer bad pitches, and somehow place its slumbering bats in the path of the ball. It wasn't pretty, but it was pretty interesting. There were three hit batters, three wild pitches, a blown balk call, and an error in the game. There were baserunning blunders and a strike zone from home-plate umpire Wally Bell that appeared to move around from inning to inning and batter to batter. If this had been a game played in May, it would have been as forgettable as the situation on Wednesday night made it memorable.

It is a measure of big-league baseball at the moment that both starters in Game 4 of a league championship series were able to scribble only 42/3 innings on their pitching lines. Maybe that's all you can expect, but both teams, operating with suspect bullpens, could have used a lot more.

Blanton, blessed with the largesse of a 4-2 lead, which is a virtual explosion for the slumbering Phillies offense, didn't get hit around as badly as San Francisco starter Madison Bumgarner. But he committed the sin of walking the leadoff batter in the fifth inning. Two outs later, when he gave up an RBI single to Aubrey Huff, Blanton was gone.

It was a big move from Manuel because it meant he had to find 13 outs in his bullpen, and it also meant he had no faith in Blanton to continue. Blanton had thrown only 63 pitches, but he was suffering from death by a thousand paper cuts. The three runs he allowed were all given up with two outs, and he didn't look like a pitcher capable of closing big innings. Manuel wasn't going to wait and see if he could figure it out.

The Phillies have been spoiled, in this series and this season, by their starters' eating up a lot of innings and saving the bullpen from exposure. Blanton couldn't do so and that was part of the argument for skipping him in the rotation and hitching the horses of the starting staff to a three-days' rest schedule.

The alternative argument is that, regardless of Blanton's success, pitching him allows Halladay, Oswalt, and Cole Hamels to remain on their regular schedules. And there was always the possibility that he would either throw a gem or the Phils would hit enough to overcome a middling effort. That wasn't the case, and now the Big Three, who were 1-2 in the opening three games of the series, have to be 3-0 in the last three.

Most puzzling of all, however, was the decision to use Oswalt in relief. If the entire idea of pitching Blanton was to not mess around at with the Big Three, to keep them on their regular schedules, and protect them from harm, then what was Oswalt doing pitching the ninth inning? The answer is that Manuel was running out of pitchers (largely because Blanton got only 14 outs), the game could have lasted many innings, and Manuel apparently would rather mess up his rotation than put his trust in Kyle Kendrick. At least, that's what his actions said.

Oswalt put on his spikes in the eighth inning, told pitching coach Rich Dubee he was available, and he was taken at his word. He had already thrown a between-starts bullpen session before the game (and iced his arm afterward), and then he warmed up, came into the game, and threw another 18 live pitches. Oswalt said the extra work won't affect his possible start in Game 6. Maybe that's even true.

Right now, with the season hanging with every pitch, the Phillies just hope they find out.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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