David Murphy: For Phillies, little things mean a lot

Posted: April 13, 2012

NO ALGORITHM can predict what will happen when a hitter with the speed of Jose Reyes sends a weak chopper bounding through the infield grass. Instincts and muscle memory take over when the bat meets the ball: Placido Polanco charges in from the basepath, scoops up the bounce, and in one smooth motion snaps a throw in the direction his momentum is traveling. From start to finish, the play takes 4 or 5 seconds. The decisive moments take a fraction of that. A half step is all that separates comfort from trouble. In this case - top of the eighth, one out, two-run lead - comfort prevails.

At times, baseball can seem less like a sport and more like a reductionist's graduate project. But a team like the Phillies will live and die in the moments in between. Thursday night, they lived, their solid pitching and stellar defense leading the way in a 3-1 victory that evened their record at 3-3.

For as out of kilter as the offense can look, we can't forget that the formula for success has changed in the years since 2008. While the search to inject fresh talent into an aging lineup has yielded plenty of frustration, the Phillies have made a conscious effort to lessen their reliance on the unit that slugged them back into prominence. At times, that effort has required them to err on the side of games like Thursday night's, when a split second of indecision might have left the Marlins with Reyes on first and the heart of the lineup approaching. In hindsight, the result could have been fatal. Emilio Bonifacio followed Reyes' one-out groundout with an infield single. Chad Qualls then walked Hanley Ramirez to put the tying run on base. Two on and two out is a heck of a lot more palatable than bases loaded one out.

"It's outstanding for you as a pitcher," said Joe Blanton, who held the Marlins to one run on three hits and a walk in seven innings before turning things over to Qualls in the eighth. "It gives you the confidence to really go out and attack the zone, get ground balls, force action, get the hitters swinging. When you have that good of a defense, it gives you a lot of confidence on the mound. It really does."

Like many aspects of this Phillies team, the defense and bullpen have produced mixed results in the first week of this 2012 season. The bullpen already has two losses and one blown save. The defense has been brilliant at times, susceptible at others. Thursday night, everything worked according to plan.

The last out of the sixth inning arrived thanks to a huge save by Ty Wigginton, who made a falling, stretching grab of a wide Blanton throw on a nubber off the bat of Logan Morrison. Earlier in the night, Wigginton had botched a ground ball, only to be backed up by rookie second baseman Freddy Galvis, who found Blanton covering first for the out.

But it was Qualls who might have had the most important performance, escaping the aforementioned jam by striking out Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton to set Jonathan Papelbon up for his second save as a Phillie. The veteran righthander entered spring training with an uncertain role, a late-and-cheap offseason signing who arrived in Philadelphia looking to put to rest a disappointing 2-year stretch. Qualls has made an improbable rise to the team's go-to setup man, thanks to the continued injury rehabilitation of Jose Contreras and some spring-training struggles by 2011 sensations Antonio Bastardo and Mike Stutes.

"He's got a tremendous sinker/slider," manager Charlie Manuel said. "His sinker goes from 92 to 95. It's got a big drop on it. The ball really sinks. And he's got a good, hard slider."

Despite Qualls' success, the setup situation is one to monitor. Bastardo finished last season as the team's primary setup man, regularly shutting down the eighth inning in front of Ryan Madson. Thursday night, he was warming in the bullpen as Qualls pitched. Manuel said later he would have thought about calling on him had the inning reached the lefthanded-hitting Morrison. But it is worth noting that Bastardo usually got the call at the start of the eighth last season. Thursday night, Qualls got the call. In Pittsburgh last weekend, Kyle Kendrick got a shot. Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee tend to rely more on actions than public comments to relay their plan for the late innings of close games, and those are the actions.

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese.


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