Sam Donnellon: Bullpen is the Phillies' Achilles'

Posted: June 29, 2012

RYAN HOWARD roamed the dugout with the elated ease of a rescued castaway Wednesday night, even told the media assembled for an update on his condition that, "I missed you all."

The feeling is mutual, of course, even if the emotion is based more on sentiment than salvation. Because Chase Utley and the current four hitter, Carlos Ruiz, hit consecutive first-inning home runs and Jimmy Rollins continued to get on base and the Phillies scored seven runs. But the Phillies' bullpen, used en masse to cover a rainout-caused hole in the rotation, continued to be a torturous ride of inaccuracy and inconsistency and that, as it has for much of this month, doomed any chance of forgetting this team's real Achilles' problem is not at the end of Howard's leg, or anywhere inside of Utley's knees.

The Phillies lost to the Pirates, 11-7, at Citizens Bank Park Wednesday night. Raul Valdes started and, over two innings, struggled with control. Joe Savery followed and struggled with it, too. By the time Michael Schwimer walked off the mound in the fifth, the Phillies trailed, 8-2, and the Utley buzz had been replaced by the familiar bullpen boo.

Of the first five arms called to pitch no more than two innings each, only rookie Jake Diekman exited unscathed. Over those two innings, the Phillies scored five runs, even had two on with no one out in the seventh inning, but couldn't tie it up. But then Chad Qualls entered the game and it quickly became, well, a squall. And the bullpen boo returned — only this time while a significant number of the 44,057 walked toward the parking lots.

With Utley back and Howard playing in his first rehab game Thursday night in Lakewood, Wednesday night encapsulated the daily dose of hope and despair of this season. Really, it's the working title of this year's team video, Hope and Despair, and looks to remain so unless management can obtain more reliable middle relievers the way the Cardinals did around this time a season ago.

Otherwise, Utley's return and Howard's imminent one are more about next season than this one. Howard even inadvertently emphasized that when he was asked when he thought he would be completely healed. "Who knows, man?" he said. "Maybe not until next year. If it's 80 percent, 85 percent, all I can do is give you 100 percent of 85 percent."

One hundred percent of 85 percent?

It sounds like a lot of balls dying on the warning track, sounds like a bigger problem than a solution.

At least until Howard clarified that he was speaking of running mostly, of those first few steps out of the batter's box, not the last few feet of a well-struck ball. Asked several times to clarify that percentage, Howard repeatedly professed a belief that his bat was as powerful as ever, that "Hitting-wise, I don't feel any different."

"Initially, the first couple of steps were an issue," he said. "As of late, it's gotten a lot better. It's not going to be Olympic time-trial speed. I know you guys are going to be a little disappointed with that. But it's whatever I've got is what I'm going to give."

As for his hitting?

"It's one of those things I don't even think about," he said. "I'm able to get up on the ball with my foot and on my follow-through. Swing-wise, it doesn't feel any different. That, to me, is the No.1 thing.

“My swing has been normal. I haven't tried to hold anything back from my swing. I've been able to get my legs into my swings. In Clearwater [for extended spring training], I was really able to focus on getting my swing back."

Phew.

What Utley did Wednesday night was nudge the Phillies a little closer to the role of buyer. And if Howard's self-analysis before the game proves prophetic, his return to the Phillies lineup within the next 3 weeks should, too.

It's hard to believe the Phillies would not part with Domonic Brown or almost any position player not from their championship core to get some better performing arms from lesser performing teams for a second-half run in a division that has been much less competitive than originally imagined.

"We get them back, we'll get better. I think we know that," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Who they are and their presence helps. But at the same time … "

... Somebody in that bullpen has to step up on a consistent basis. And/or somebody — somebodies? — need to be added to this well-financed roster. The sooner, the better.

Otherwise, there's likely to be more short-circuits like Wednesday night's.

And more boos for the bullpen than cheers for returning heroes.   

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|