J.T. Realmuto held his catcher’s mask Saturday night, looked to the pitcher’s mound in the eighth inning of a 6-5 loss to the Braves, lifted his arms, and seemed to ask Hector Neris what exactly he was doing as yet another late-inning collapse unfolded.
Realmuto had just recovered a sinker that spiked into the dirt, but he could have been speaking for everyone when it comes to the Phillies’ bullpen.
Two pitches later, Marcell Ozuna singled through the second-base hole to beat the shift for an RBI. Two batters later, Joe Girardi swapped Neris for the newly acquired Brandon Workman, and the first pitch of his Phillies career was lined to left field by Matt Adams for a two-run, go-ahead double. And an inning later, Adam Duvall singled off Workman for a walk-off win.
The Phillies entered the seventh inning with a four-run lead, but watched another team celebrate again. And the bullpen — a new reliever and an old reliever — shouldered the blame again.
“That’s not the first impression I’m trying to make. That’s not what I do on the mound,” said Workman, who allowed all four of his hits on curveballs. “I need to execute pitches better than I did tonight. There’s no excuse for that. I just need to do a better job and get my job done.”
The Phillies have won just one of their first six games on a 10-game road trip that ends Thursday. They have held a lead in each of those five losses, yet will still ride a five-game losing streak into Sunday night’s series finale in Atlanta.
They blew a seven-run lead on Thursday, added three relievers on Friday, and then watched the bullpen collapse again on Saturday. The bullpen has a 8.29 ERA, which is not only the highest in the majors this season but higher than any in baseball history. For the Phillies, no lead is safe.
“We just have to get better. We have to absolutely just be better. It’s plain and simple,” Bryce Harper said. “We have to have trust in those guys and have the confidence in those guys to get out there and throw strikes and get outs. The day that we don’t have confidence in those guys it’s not going to be good. Having the guys that we do down there, we’ve just have to have all the confidence in their ability. We got three horses in the trades the last two days. I think those guys are going to be really good for us. It’s just putting them in the right spots, in good situations for them to succeed. I think they’re going to be good for us.”
Another poor night for the bullpen wasted seven strong innings by Zack Wheeler. The right-hander struck out eight batters, walked none, and held the Braves to two runs. Wheeler did not allow a runner to reach second base until Austin Riley hit a two-run homer in the seventh.
Wheeler threw 105 pitches, generated 14 swing-and-misses, and used his curveball for six of his strikeouts. He was excellent, but he needed to be perfect if he was going to leave the game for the bullpen to finish.
“It happens. I know our fans are struggling with it, but it’s baseball. It’s a hard game,” Wheeler said. “These guys are going out here and giving the best that they can. Sometimes the ball just goes the other way. I have trust in our bullpen. I’ve watched these guys for a couple years and I know what they’re capable of. You have to keep your chin up and keep going.”
The Phillies remain in last place and are five-games below .500 for the first time since 2017. As bad as things are, the National League East race is far from over, as 28 of their remaining games are against division opponents. The bullpen is woeful, but the starting pitching has been dependable and the lineup productive.
The Phillies’ chances to reach October depend on their ability to solve the late-inning puzzle.
“It’s frustrating. But no one’s going to feel sorry for us,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I think there’s a ton of talent in that room and we have to bounce back. Every day you get a chance to rewrite a script in this game. That’s the great thing about this game. So the road trip, it started off a win and now we’ve lost a number of games in a row. And it’s frustrating. But, hey, you have to go out and perform tomorrow.”
They added three new relievers Friday - Workman, Heath Hembree, and David Hale - but Neris was the first to leave the bullpen on Saturday. Girardi said he wasn’t demoting Neris from the closer role, but instead liked the match-ups for Neris in the eighth inning.
Neris’ success is dictated by his splitter and the Braves did not chase it Saturday. He threw it six times and none were swung at. Neris faced four batters, recorded one out, allowed a run, and put the go-ahead run on base before pushing Workman into action an inning early.
Neris has allowed runs in four of his last five appearances. Girardi did not say he demoted him, but it’s hard to expect that he’d be trusted to close out games any time soon.
“Hector, since I’ve been here, has been extremely professional. He said he’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Girardi said. “And that’s exactly what he told us. We talked to him today. And he said, ‘I get it. I understand. I’ll be ready when you call me.’ You know, you look at that inning, he gives up a ground ball that if it’s a few more toward the middle it’s a double play and it’s a whole different game. But it wasn’t and it got away from us.”
Harper hit a two-run homer 470 feet in the first inning and tied the game in the ninth with a sacrifice fly to left field. Harper drove in three of the team’s five runs. He leads the majors in OPS and has reached base in 22-straight games to start the season.
His sacrifice fly drove in Neil Walker, who slid home to narrowly beat a strong throw from Cristian Pache. Walker started the ninth with a single, Roman Quinn reached on a bunt, and Rhys Hoskins was hit by a pitch with one out to load the bases. The Phillies put up a fight after their bullpen coughed up the lead. And Harper tied the game.
But none of that would soon matter. For another night, the Phillies were left asking what exactly their bullpen was doing.
“We have minimal games to play this year, we have to be able to get out there and play our game and we have to win,” Harper said. “I mean, we have to go on a streak and win nine out of 10. It’s needs to happen. It’s tough. It’s very tough in baseball to do that. But to get where we need to be, it needs to happen. What’s crazy is you could go .500 and get in. But there are some teams that are not playing very well right now so if we do go .500 and we get in and we have the three horses that we have at the top and the guys in our bullpen, and I think we’re going to even go out and get more guys and get better. You’re going to have to do it. If we’re going to go for it and get it done then I believe that’s what’s going to happen.”
“But the more and more you lose, the more and more your chances of course go down. We just have to go about it the right way each day and we have to come in tomorrow and be ready to go. We can’t feel bad or think about our losses in the last five or whatever it is. We have to come in tomorrow ready to beat a good Braves team and hopefully get it rolling for this next week.”