Rich Hofmann: Calendar says it's past time for Phillies to get bullpen right

Posted: June 29, 2012

THE NINTH INNING for the Phillies was pitched by someone without a nameplate above his locker — and the unnamed Jeremy Horst did just fine, thanks. Horst pitched a scoreless ninth, Brian Sanches pitched a scoreless eighth, the majority of the bullpen is the walking definition of untested, and the Phillies are trying to force-feed them experience on the one hand and get back in a pennant race on the other hand.

"A balancing act" is what general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. called it.

"Pretty damn difficult" is what field manager Charlie Manuel called it.

Upstairs, downstairs.

The Phillies bullpen should be better than it is, if that makes any sense. It is third in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB), middling in walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP). Those numbers suggest a group that should be decent — not necessarily great (there was only so much Kool-Aid available in the press box during Thursday afternoon's 5-4 loss to the Pirates, after all) but serviceable.

Over time, you would expect that level to be attained. The problem for the Phillies is that there is no time anymore.

The Phillies are going to have to play .619 baseball over the final 84 games of the season if they are to reach 88 wins for the year — which is what the Mets, the second wild-card team in Thursday's National League standings, are currently on a pace to reach. That is a bit of a stretch but doable, if Roy Halladay comes back from the disabled list in a reasonable amount of time and in good form, and if Cole Hamels continues to be Cole Hamels, and if the law of averages has not been completely repealed when it comes to Cliff Lee.

But here is the problem, after a 2-0 lead in a series against the Pirates turned into a 2-2 split, and after a homestand that began with promise ended at 5-5. As Manuel said, "We get to a point and then we fall back."

If the Phils were to go 12-12 between now and the morning of the July 31 trade deadline, it would leave them needing to play .667 baseball in the remaining games to get to 88 wins. Given everything, that might just be a bridge too far.

It should not be this late, this early, but it is — which is why Sanches is now in the bullpen, replacing Joe Savery, and Horst is now in the bullpen, replacing Chad Qualls. In a sport where so many teams see themselves with postseason possibilities, and with so few trades for relief pitching likely to be consummated as a result, there is nothing for the Phillies to do but find out about every kid with a chance of helping them this summer.

This bullpen demands such experimentation — but, even more than that, the calendar demands it.

"I think, right now, people are just kind of assessing what their needs are," Amaro said. "One of the residual effects of the wild card, of the two wild cards, is you're not going to see a lot of movement. There's going to be a lot more teams, I think, that are going to be in it, or at least believe that they are — us being one of them.

“As far back as we are right now, we still believe that we have a chance to be a contender. We are one. Obviously, we have to play more consistent baseball over the next several weeks. But I believe in our club as being a contender still, and we're [six] games below .500. There's some other teams out there saying the same thing."

Truth be told, it is the starting pitching that is either going to carry the Phillies to the postseason, or not. It has been weak in June, pitching to a 4.85 ERA, and it has to get better. History, and common sense, suggests that it will — assuming Halladay returns as himself. If it doesn't, we can begin assembling the recriminations now.

As for the bullpen, the decision to designate Qualls for assignment has seemed imminent for weeks, despite his notion that if he hadn't gotten lit up on Wednesday night, none of this would have happened.

"I expect a lot more out of myself," Qualls said. "I could have thrown the ball a lot better while I was here. I could have been more consistent. I don't want to say I'm a scapegoat or anything like that. This is just the move the organization wants to make … Hopefully, the move is better for the team."

The truth is, no one really knows. Savery to Sanches, Qualls to Horst, Michael Schwimer, Jake Diekman, Raul Valdes — the Phillies are just answering questions with different questions, hoping against hope that something clicks.

"I think it's an area that we need to address," Amaro said. "But right now … we've got to give these guys an opportunity to try to grow. How much they can grow during the course of the season, we don't know. We have some talent there, but it's tough to put some of the kids in this position, because we're in a position to win and want to win on a consistent basis."

But they have no choice until they can trade for somebody, and they say they can't trade for somebody until a few more teams fall out of the race, and they can't know that for a couple of weeks, and if they don't get their own selves going in a couple of weeks, it isn't going to matter anyway.

Pretty damn difficult, as someone said.  

Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynews.com, read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich, or follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann

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