Phils' bullpen the real story

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jonathan Papelbon reacts after earning his third save.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jonathan Papelbon reacts after earning his third save.
Posted: April 15, 2014

THE REAL STORY of this Phillies weekend was not Jimmy's Saturday night walkoff, or Chase's game-winning blast yesterday or even the 6-3 victory Friday. The real story was that Jake Diekman won a game as a middle-inning reliever, and looked comfortable in that spot. And that B.J. Rosenberg pitched perfect innings in two straight games, striking out Giancarlo Stanton in the middle of a statement seventh inning yesterday, then walking off the mound as if, well, he does this for a living.

The real story is that Jonathan Papelbon pitched like Jonathan Papelbon again, and the Phillies' bullpen - the real story about whether this season can be anything more than mediocre - looked like it could be something if these guys can grab hold of the wide-open roles that have been so unfulfilled over the past two seasons, when the bullpen wasted or made irrelevant any grind-it-out efforts the lineup could provide.

"Confidence goes through everyone," Rosenberg said after the Phillies' 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins gave them a sweep of the weekend series. "Diekman's pitching very well, everybody kind of feeds off of that. Hopefully everyone can get on a roll and keep doing our job out there and show how good we can be."

The Phillies have scored 56 runs in their first 12 games. Not bad, not great, and a bit promising if you believe Domonic Brown still has a couple of hot months in him, and that Ryan Howard's mammoth home run over the centerfield fence in the third inning yesterday was more harbinger than happenstance.

The offense has been fine. It might not feel that way, given the Phillies' 6-6 record and our natural tendency to focus on a team's pivotal attempts to win close games rather than the more numerous and circumstantial details by which a game is often lost. But the Phillies could easily be 8-4, despite the sweep by the Brewers last week, if their bullpen had gotten even a few more outs.

The truth is that Ryne Sandberg's mantra of more selective plate appearances has borne results amid this admittedly small sample size. The Phillies are among baseball's best in walks and on-base percentage, two categories in which they finished near the bottom last season. So while Howard's glove is a concern and Brown's bat is, too, they are making pests of themselves at the plate and possibly building toward a more prolific output.

"I think there was definitely room for improvement," Utley said after his three-hit (and one walk) day pushed his average to .500 for the season. "I still think there's room for improvement. It's all about having trust in the guy behind you. Not trying to do too much at the dish. It's hard sometimes to tell yourself that. But that's a good game plan."

Be advised: The 1993 Phillies team that mashed its way to 877 runs and a National League pennant? It scored 62 runs in its first 12 games. Moreover, in jumping to a 17-5 record in April, it averaged exactly five runs per game - just slightly better than the Phillies' current output.

It was a lineup that ate at you like piranhas. Everybody bought in, everyone worked the count, everyone had a plan. Second baseman Mickey Morandini agreed to choke up for a time to combat a tendency to hit fly outs.

"As a professional baseball player, going up to the plate and choking up that much - for some, it's embarrassing," Morandini said during this year's spring training. "But for me, it was a chance for me to stay in the big leagues and give it a shot, and it worked out for me."

Yesterday, Rosenberg spoke appreciatively of pitching coach Bob McClure working with him on the angle of his delivery. On the other side of the room, Tony Gwynn Jr., who had three hits as a leadoff man in place of injured starter Ben Revere, spoke of the value for a sub in getting these kind at-bats early on.

"I just think it's going to be a grind-it-out season here," he said. "Sure, we'd love to add two or three runs to what we're getting. But this is the big leagues. It's tough. Runs are at a premium. So I think ultimately . . . every game will be a little different. And hopefully we'll rise to the occasion."

It would be a good story. All unlikely ones are. Meaningful games, meaningful at-bats, new life breathed into a still-proud core through the results of an improved plate approach.

But it can't happen without the real story. It can't happen without Rosenberg, Diekman, Antonio Bastardo and whoever else bridges those innings that have sabotaged so many renditions of "High Hopes" over recent seasons becoming something more than suspects.

"Just go out there like it's anyone," said Rosenberg. "Whoever it is, you've got to get them out. I've always been that way. But once I got up here, it was a little faster and the hitters are a lot better and you've seen those guys on TV before. Now, after getting a little bit of time up here, you kind of lose that awe factor. You just get confidence that you can get those guys out."


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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