Phils' bullpen being exposed

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER It's aces back-to-back as losing pitcher Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels watch the seventh inning.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER It's aces back-to-back as losing pitcher Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels watch the seventh inning.
Posted: April 11, 2014

WHEN JAKE DIEKMAN stepped onto the warning track and began his 335 1/2-foot jog toward the pitcher's mound last night, it was officially time to wonder whether the Phillies' bullpen situation was out of control.

This was the seventh inning of a game that the home team trailed by two runs. Due up were three righthanded batters, a species that entered the night having touched Diekman for a .282 batting average, .385 on-base percentage, and .391 slugging percentage in his career. Of the 14 righties that the side-arming lefty had faced in 2014, six had reached base.

But Ryne Sandberg had spent the previous couple of nights watching the other options at his disposal obliterate surmountable deficits - righty Brad Lincoln was charged with three runs on Tuesday, righty Justin De Fratus with two on Wednesday - and so he summoned his top weapon to face the heart of the Brewers' order with nobody out and runners on the corners.

We bring all of this up not because the Brewers ended up scoring both of the runners that Diekman inherited. The wisdom of the move can certainly be debated on the grounds that it did not increase the Phillies' chances of winning. But the bigger issue is the bigger picture, which reveals a bullpen in which Diekman is one of only three, maybe four relievers whom Sandberg trusts to pitch out of a make-or-break jam.

The issue isn't Diekman's workload. Yes, he has appeared in six of the Phillies' nine games, but he also has enjoyed 7 days of rest. The issue is that, over the course of the season, the Phillies are going to face more make-or-break jams than three, maybe four relievers can handle. At some point, an appearance by somebody such as Diekman in the seventh inning of a game the Phillies trail by two runs will cost him the ability to appear in a game in which they lead by two runs. Somebody else has to pitch, and, suddenly, they have a runaway snow boulder on their hands.

A for-instance: Let's say A.J. Burnett pitches six innings against the Marlins tonight, and let's say the Phillies have a 4-3 lead when he leaves the game. The Phillies will need to kill three innings to snap their three-game losing streak. Jonathan Papelbon is slated for the ninth, Antonio Bastardo for the eighth.

Who gets the seventh?

Diekman is third on the depth chart behind Papelbon and Bastardo. Back-to-back-to-back outings would not be unprecedented. He has only done it once in his career. Nevertheless, he has done it. But do the Phillies really want him pitching seven times in 12 days in April?

If Diekman is unavailable to pitch in our hypothetical situation, then he will need to be replaced by one of the pitchers who were bypassed in his favor last night, which would seem to counteract the benefit of bypassing them last night, because last night's situation had less on the line, at least as far as win probability goes, than our hypothetical situation for tonight.

Not that you can blame Sandberg for feeling at a loss for options. His relievers have combined to allow 19 runs in 26 2/3 innings. They have allowed six of 10 inherited runners to score. But the bullpen as it exists right now is not sustainable. And keep in mind that the Phillies are carrying an extra reliever. One of the current crop will depart tomorrow when Jonathan Pettibone joins the fray as the fifth starter. Sandberg cannot subsist on Papelbon, Diekman and Bastardo alone.

If you have any suggestions, the switchboard operator at Citizens Bank Park would be thrilled to connect you. At this point, Plan A involves waiting for Mike Adams to finish his rehab assignment and hoping that his surgically repaired shoulder does not prevent him from pitching effectively. Plan B: Hope that the lineup is a dormant beast that, once awakened, will combine with regular seven-inning starts from Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Burnett to enable the Phillies to ignore the front of their bullpen.

"The good news," Ryne Sandberg said, "is the Brewers are leaving town."

The bad news is that the Phillies' issues will remain.

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy


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