A seven-run lead had shrunk to just one when Joe Girardi walked to the mound in the sixth inning of Thursday’s nightcap at Sahlen Field in Buffalo. The Blue Jays already homered twice in the inning, scored four times, and had the tying run at the plate with one out.
Hours earlier, the Phillies dropped the first game of the doubleheader, 3-2, after another letdown by their battered bullpen. And Girardi was determined to not let it happen again. So he summoned Hector Neris — his closer — to record the final five outs. But Girardi only got one in a crushing 9-8 loss.
The Blue Jays scored three runs against Neris, none of which were earned because of errors by Scott Kingery and Didi Gregorious. The tying run scored on a wild pitch, and the go-ahead run followed on a two-run single to center. The Blue Jays scored seven times in the inning, and the Phillies’ seven-run lead became a two-run deficit.
“It’s frustrating. Really frustrating,” Girardi said. “We had a chance to win two games. We lost leads in both games late. And those are frustrating. But you have to turn the page.”
The Phillies entered the sixth inning of the second game ahead by five runs. Starter Vince Velasquez had thrown 84 pitches and had retired 13 of his last 14 batters after a rocky first inning. It seemed like a good chance to lift him on a high note.
But Girardi’s relief options were limited to Connor Brogdon, Cole Irvin, JoJo Romero, Reggie McClain, and Hector Neris.
“That was really what I had,” Girardi said.
The Phillies’ bullpen ERA (8.07) is the worst in baseball, and their most reliable pitcher — Jose Alvarez — left the first game after a 105-mph line drive hit him in the groin. It’s hard to find a pitcher in the Phillies bullpen that gives you confidence.
Tommy Hunter — the lone major-league free agent signed this offseason — allowed the tying run in the sixth inning of the opener, and Deolis Guerra — one of the three relievers the Phillies claimed last winter off waivers — allowed the winning run in the seventh.
The Phillies entered the season with a patchwork bullpen and have tried plugging it with minor-league call ups, to no avail. Perhaps they can find an external fix before the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but making a move could be difficult. Eight teams in each league will make the postseason, which could shy teams from selling, since they might believe they still have a shot at October.
The Phillies (9-12) have played a third of their 60-game season, and they might have no other choice but to ride out the rest with who they have.
“My job is to manage the players that they give me and to get the best out of them. So I will continue to try to do that,” Girardi said. “You know, everyone talks about trades during the trade deadline, and it always takes two to tango. If you’re going to do something, I mean. So I’ll let them handle that, and I’ll manage the guys they give me.”
The manager added: “We have to get it done with the guys that we have right now. That’s the bottom line. Because that’s who’s in the clubhouse.”
With limited options in the bullpen, Girardi tried to stretch Velasquez for one more inning. Rowdy Tellez started the sixth with a homer, Teoscar Hernandez singled, and Velasquez was finished. Girardi went to Brogdon, who walked Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and allowed a two-run homer to Lourdes Gurriel before inducing a groundout. And then came Neris with the lead down to one.
Danny Jansen hit a grounder to second base but was safe when Kingery misfired to first. Travis Shaw struck out, and Cavan Biggio walked to put two runners on. Neris appeared to escape the inning when Randal Grichuk chopped a grounder to Gregorius, but the usually reliable shortstop misplayed it, and the bases were loaded.
“I thought it was going to take an extra hop on me, but it stayed down,” Gregorius said. “It was stupid by me to make a stupid mistake, and it cost us a couple runs. That’s on me.”
It was already a tough task for Girardi to ask Neris for five outs, but then Neris had to get seven outs, thanks to poor defense. If Kingery made the play, Neris would have ended the inning ahead by one after throwing just seven pitches. Instead, it rolled on.
Neris’ 19th pitch of the inning was a fastball that skipped past Andrew Knapp for a wild pitch. Jansen slid home for the tying run and Tellez dropped Neris’ next pitch into center field for a two-run single. The seven-run lead was gone.
The Phillies built that lead in the first inning, sending 11 batters to the plate, and made the Blue Jays use two pitchers for three outs. But none of that mattered. It wasn’t good enough. For the second time in a few hours, the Phillies were done in by their bullpen.