In recasting the bullpen last winter, the Phillies prioritized velocity and experience, two qualities that were badly lacking in 2020. But no matter what they did or which relievers they acquired, they figured they would be better at guarding late leads this season because, well, they couldn’t be worse.
Yet here they are, 16 games from the regular-season finish line, with 32 blown saves, two shy of tying the 2004 Colorado Rockies’ major-league record.
“It has been better” than last year, manager Joe Girardi said this week, and somehow he’s right. A bullpen that ranked 25th in the majors with a 4.74 ERA entering Friday night’s series opener against the New York Mets at Citi Field isn’t good. But it sure beats the 2020 Phillies’ 7.06 mark, which was worse than only the 1930 Phillies among all-time terrible bullpens since 1901.
The bar was so low that the grounds crew could use it to drag the infield. And it’s true that José Alvarado, Archie Bradley, Sam Coonrod, and Ian Kennedy were upgrades over Tommy Hunter, Adam Morgan, Blake Parker, and Brandon Workman.
But if it seems like the Phillies don’t win many games in a normal fashion, it’s mostly because they blow eighth- and ninth-inning leads in cuticle-chomping losses such as Wednesday night. Even more absurd: The bullpen dropped the Phillies down a seven-run hole Thursday night before a furious rally in a 17-8 thrashing of the Chicago Cubs. Nine-run routs aren’t supposed to be so tense.
Not every bullpen blowup is created equal, but each takes a toll. The Phillies are 13-13 in games in which they blew at least one save, which means their 73-72 record isn’t as shabby as it could be. When you lead the majors in cough-ups, though, it’s likely that you’re also tops in gut-punching losses.
With Héctor Neris, Bradley, Kennedy, and others eligible for free agency, the Phillies are facing another bullpen remodeling this offseason. Maybe the third time will be the charm?
Meanwhile, with the Phillies trailing the Atlanta Braves by three games in the National League East entering Friday night and their first playoff berth since 2011 hanging in the balance, here’s a look at a few of the losses they would most like to have back:
Leading 3-1 in the ninth inning, one strike away from clinching a rare series victory at Truist Park and giving the Phillies their sixth consecutive victory, Neris threw a belt-high fastball that pinch-hitting Pablo Sandoval crushed to right field for a game-tying two-run homer. Connor Brogdon fumbled a 4-3 lead in the 11th inning and Enyel De Los Santos gave away a 7-4 lead in the 12th en route to an 8-7 loss.
Brogdon gave up a game-tying solo homer to Austin Riley in the eighth inning before Coonrod made a throwing error and allowed two inherited runners to score. Two crushing losses, one month apart to the team that the Phillies currently trail in the standings.
This was one month before Washington traded one-third of its roster at the deadline, one night after Girardi accused Max Scherzer of cheating and Scherzer nearly undressed on the mound. The Phillies led, 5-0, in the fourth inning, 9-5 in the fifth, and 12-11 in the eighth only to lose 13-12. Other than Alvarado, no reliever was immune to melting down. Bradley, Coonrod, David Hale, and Neris gave up runs. “It’s a bad day,” Neris said, summing it up perfectly.
Girardi replaced Neris in the closer role with Alvarado, who promptly made a throwing error and gave up a two-rungame-winning single to Francisco Lindor to ruin a history-making start for Aaron Nola in the opener of a doubleheader in New York.
The Phillies grabbed a lead against Jacob deGrom and took it into the ninth inning. But a week filled with bullpen follies continued with Neris, forced back into the ninth inning because Alvarado and Bradley were unavailable, giving up a bases-loaded walk and a decisive sacrifice fly. But sometimes it’s not about the pitcher. The Mets’ winning rally started when first baseman Rhys Hoskins booted a routine grounder. Phillies pitchers haven’t been helped by one of the worst defenses in the majors.
With the Braves losing in Colorado, the Phillies had a two-run lead in the eighth inning. And then they didn’t. Bradley gave up three hits, including a two-run homer to Lewis Brinson in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins. “That’s a game we should win,” Bradley said. “To blow that game, it stings. It hurts.”
After cycling through Neris, Alvarado, and Ranger Suárez, the Phillies acquired Kennedy at the trade deadline to bring stability to the closer role. One strike from nailing down a big late-season save, he gave up back-to-back homers to Ryan McMahon and Sam Hilliard on two-strike pitches. Maybe Kennedy has a few big saves in his future over the next two weeks. This one, though, was a killer.