Six games into the season, with it already having become clear that the Phillies' bullpen was a train wreck, veteran reliever Tommy Hunter put out a call for patience.
“Don’t hit that little red button so fast,” he said.
How about now?
It’s one month later, three weeks remain in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it season, and although many of the names have changed, the bullpen remains a game-by-game adventure that threatens to destroy the Phillies' chances of going deep in the playoffs, assuming of course that they wind up as one of the eight best teams in the National League.
Look no further than Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. In the opener, Hunter made a one-run lead vanish in only 18 pitches, and the Phillies won anyway, 6-5, on Alec Bohm’s walk-off two-run single. But there was no comeback in the finale after David Phelps faced three batters, didn’t record an out, and gave up two runs on 12 pitches in a 5-2 loss.
Add in that the Phillies had to outhit the bullpen in a 10-inning Labor Day victory in New York and this is shaping up to be an exhausting way to win at a time when the schedule -- five doubleheaders in 15 days, 30 games overall in 27 days in September -- is exhausting enough.
“We’re going to need all these guys in our bullpen,” manager Joe Girardi said. “They’ve had some struggles lately, but they’re capable of turning it around. Very capable.”
The bullpen’s ERA now stands at 7.02, which is only marginally better than its 7.91 mark when general manager Matt Klentak acquired David Hale, Brandon Workman, and Heath Hembree in a pair of Aug. 21 trades. The Phillies picked up Phelps at the trade deadline, too, and Hunter and Hector Neris have mostly pitched better since the new additions arrived.
But the group still isn’t trustworthy enough, and with Girardi having to keep the starters fresh for a grueling stretch drive, the Phillies' best relievers are going to have to be better.
Making his first start in 20 days, Vince Velasquez gave the Phillies five solid innings in the second game. But that’s as far as he got, reaching 90 pitches and giving way to Phelps in the sixth inning in a 2-2 game.
Phelps walked Jackie Bradley Jr. on four pitches, then allowed a two-run homer to Bobby Dalbec on a curveball. Phelps has made four appearances for the Phillies and allowed a home run in the last three after giving up only two homers in 12 games for the Milwaukee Brewers. He has faced 14 batters and given up five hits and three walks.
“He’s thrown some flat breaking balls up in the zone is, I think, what we’re seeing,” Girardi said. “We’ve got to get him back on track. We’ve got to get Hembree back on track.”
Hembree gave up a run in the seventh inning, marking the fourth consecutive outing in which he has been scored upon.
The Phillies threatened in their final at-bat, as they’re wont to do, bringing the tying run to the plate. But unlike Jean Segura’s two-run homer Monday in New York or Bohm’s big hit in Tuesday’s opener, Rhys Hoskins flew out to the warning track in right field, perfectly symbolizing a comeback bid that fell short.
“It’s hard to [sweep] doubleheaders, but we had a chance to today after a really emotional win in the first game and got a quick lead,” Girardi said. “It looked like we were going to add on a few times but we weren’t able to, so it’s a little frustrating.”
One of those times came in the fourth inning. But J.T. Realmuto, a typically smart baserunner, took second base on a wild pitch and continued to third. Red Sox catcher Deivy Grullon, a Phillies prospect until he was designated for assignment last week and claimed off waivers by Boston, threw out Realmuto.
“You’ve got to be safe there,” Girardi said. “He thought he’d be in there, but it didn’t work.”
In the first game, Zach Eflin gave up three solo home runs but still left after five innings with a 4-3 lead. Hunter came in to start the sixth and gave up a one-out, game-tying solo homer to Dalbec, also on a curveball.
Two batters later, he hit Alex Verdugo with a pitch before Phillies killer Rafael Devers (10-for-17 in four games against them, including two homers in Tuesday’s opener) hit a curveball over leaping Bryce Harper at the right-field for a go-ahead RBI double.
But the Phillies put the tying and go-ahead runners on base against Red Sox closer Matt Barnes. Down to his final strike, Bohm coolly laced a two-out single through the left side.
“We kind of actually called it,” Eflin said. "We knew if Bohmer was getting up, he was going to get the job done.
“Just how confident, calm, and collected he is, you look at him and he looks like he’s been playing ball up here for 10 years. It’s just amazing what he’s doing right now.”
In a sense, the same is true lately of the Phillies, who have won 12 of 16 games despite a bullpen for which no lead is too great to give away.