David Murphy: Phillies desperate for bullpen answers

Phillies' Jose Contreras reacts after giving up three-run homer to Mets' Ike Davis in eighth inning.
Phillies' Jose Contreras reacts after giving up three-run homer to Mets' Ike Davis in eighth inning. (STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: May 11, 2012

THE EXODUS began while the ball was still in flight, thousands of fans rising from their seats to see where the home run would land, then turning toward the exits without a moment of hesitation. By the time Ike Davis rounded third, Citizens Bank Park looked like a scene from the "Walking Dead," horrified city-dwellers and suburbanites choking the stairways in search of the fastest route home. There did not appear to be any zombies on the premises, although given the state of the Phillies bullpen, we cannot be sure.

What we can say beyond any reasonable doubt is that Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee need help, however unproven or incremental the potential improvement might be. With a 4-2 lead in the seventh inning last night, the manager and pitching coach called on Kyle Kendrick, who had spent the previous 2 weeks in the rotation filling in for Cliff Lee. Five batters later, the righthander had yet to record an out.

The implosion lasted three innings. Nineteen batters stepped to the plate, six of them hitting doubles or home runs. When it ended, a two-run lead had turned into a 10-6 loss, and the Mets walked to their buses with a three-game sweep. The series saw the Phillies' bullpen blow two seventh-inning leads and a ninth-inning tie, with 20 of 41 batters reaching base.

That Manuel and Dubee opted for Kendrick, who has rarely pitched in high-pressure relief situations during his career, and Jose Contreras, who is 40 years old and still working his way back from a layoff of nearly a year, should tell you a thing or two about the options the two have at their disposal.

Feel free to shout out an option.

Antonio Bastardo? He'd thrown 38 pitches over the previous two games, allowing three of the eight batters he faced to reach base. In fact, Manuel said later that Bastardo was unavailable.

Chad Qualls? He had retired only seven of his previous 18 batters, blowing three saves in those four games.

Joe Savery? In his last three appearances, five of 10 batters had reached base, and none of them had struck out. After the game, he was optioned back to Triple A.

Brian Sanches? In two appearances this season, nine of the 18 batters he had faced reached base.

The plan, then, was Kendrick in the seventh, and Contreras in the eighth. When the converted starter allowed his fourth double of the night, the ancient reliever, coming off flexor tendon surgery, started throwing off the mound in the bullpen. That, in a sentence, is the Phillies bullpen.

"What we've got right now, that's kind of what we've got," Manuel said after a lengthy meeting in which he expressed his displeasure with the overall play of the team. "We'll always be talking and see if we can't get better of course. That's who we have."

The tone in Manuel's voice relayed the sense of urgency he rarely projects this early in the season. Now, the urgency must spawn action.

The optioning of Savery opens a spot on the active roster, which a team spokesman said would be filled after Thursday's off day. The logical choice is Triple A prospect Jake Diekman, a 25-year-old lefty who impressed Dubee so much during spring training that the pitching coach jokingly offered to become his agent. Heading into Wednesday, Diekman had allowed one run with 22 strikeouts and three walks in 14 1/3 innings at Lehigh Valley. He has a mid-90's fastball and a serviceable slider that has improved steadily since he jumped onto the organizational radar last year. At the very least, he is worth a tryout.

Whether Diekman is ready, or whether he will every be ready, is no longer a factor the Phillies have the luxury of considering. Wednesday night, Manuel said that Qualls was unavailable, despite the fact that the veteran sinkerballer had logged just one three-pitch outing over the previous 4 days. Bastardo was an unsurprising scratch after pitching on back-to-back days, but even when available he has looked nothing like the setup man who dominated throughout last season.

At 14-18, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard's return dates still TBD, the Phillies cannot afford to keep direct mailing victories to opponents. They have to hit, yes, and they have to catch. But a team built on pitching needs to hang onto the leads that it is given. And right now, that means an active search for a pitcher who can do so.


Contact David Murphy at murphyd@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @HighCheese. Read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese

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