Papelbon and Phillies pen off to a rough start

(Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports)
(Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports)
Posted: April 05, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas - A dazed Ryne Sandberg watched his $50 million closer lose his composure a few minutes before someone presented the logical conclusion to the Phillies manager. Jonathan Papelbon yet again mirrored the pitcher who relied on contact, not strikeouts, in the second half of last season. That requires a certain amount of luck, and there was none this time at Globe Life Park.

Is there worry this could be the continuation of a troubling trend?

"Well," Sandberg said, "we'll see how it goes."

Those six words are the slogan for an entire Phillies bullpen, a maligned unit during the last two seasons. They allowed runs in each of the first three games in 2014. The Phillies lost two games to Texas in the ninth inning. Both times they held a lead when the starting pitcher departed.

There is no defined order for the relievers, and Sandberg said more time is needed to separate the better arms from the others. He twice used Mario Hollands, a 25-year-old rookie lefthander who came to spring training as an afterthought, in key situations. He anointed B.J. Rosenberg as the team's best righthanded setup option - for now.

He did not utilize three of his righthanded pitchers - Brad Lincoln, Justin De Fratus, or Jeff Manship - in the season's opening series. Only De Fratus warmed up, and Sandberg instead opted for Hollands.

"It might take a little time," Sandberg said. "I'm anxious to get them all out there and then basically go from there after seeing them. I'm anxious to still see Lincoln, Manship, and De Fratus. Then we'll make some decisions and continue to use the whole bullpen."

Mike Adams, still recovering from extensive shoulder surgery last summer, could provide a boost within the next two weeks. Adams started his rehab assignment Thursday with single-A Clearwater, allowing one hit and no runs in an inning of work. But there are no guarantees Adams can reclaim his form as one of the game's premier setup men. He is making $7 million this season.

Papelbon's misery Wednesday further complicates the matter. It was but one bad outing in the season's third game. But the trend established last season begs further questioning.

The 33-year-old righthander blamed a mechanical flaw - he said he was "flying open" - for his location problems Wednesday. In the past, Papelbon's electric repertoire could compensate for small flaws. His strikeout numbers dipped (from 11.8 per nine innings in 2012 to 8.3 in 2013), and that means opposing hitters made more contact.

Papelbon was right; the ninth inning was "weird." Texas pinch-hitter Jim Adduci bounced one to third base, too soft for any play. Leonys Martin's hard-hit grounder past a diving Chase Utley may have been a double-play ball under normal circumstances. But the Phillies infield had to move in with the tying run at third base and one out.

Opponents batted .247 against Papelbon last season, including .303 after the all-star break. That was the highest mark of his career. The margin for error - a dribbler, a drawn-in infield - is smaller when a pitcher must rely on contact for the majority of his outs.

It is wise not to make velocity judgments until at least one month into the season. Pitchers are typically building arm strength in the initial weeks. Papelbon, who cited a hip injury as cause for his diminished stuff in 2013, could regain some juice later.

But a study of his April fastball velocity in previous seasons does not offer encouragement. Papelbon threw his fastball at an average speed of 93.94 m.p.h. in April 2012 and 92.99 m.p.h. in April 2013. There was no dramatic increase in either season.

His 91.67 m.p.h. average velocity over the first two outings of 2014 more closely resembles what Papelbon threw last September (91.71 m.p.h.).

"We have a lot more games to play," Papelbon said. "Obviously it's a disappointment. . . . But it's a long season, and I think that's one of the stronger points of my game, being able to bounce back and not have any memory of the previous game, good or bad. We just have to continue down the path."

Four days into a new season, that path is muddled.



The Phillies' bullpen ERA, ranked 14th out of 15 National League teams.


Batting average against the Phils' bullpen, tied for second-worst in the NL.


Walks by Phillies relievers

in 72/3 innings,

second-most in the NL.



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