ATLANTA — Bryce Harper had just hammered the go-ahead two-run homer off the facade of the restaurant beyond the right-field fence here Tuesday night when the question arose.
Who was going to pitch the ninth inning for the Phillies?
Answer: Nick Nelson.
Wait, Nick Nelson?
Let’s let manager Joe Girardi take it from here.
“[José] Alvarado was available; Seranthony [Domínguez] was not available; Corey [Knebel] was not available; [Jeurys] Familia was not available,” Girardi said. “The string of right-handers they had, Nellie was just throwing the ball extremely well. We were short, really short, tonight in the bullpen.”
So, the Phillies stuck with Nelson. And 10 pitches later, it was over. The Atlanta Braves scored twice on a double, a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly featuring a misplay in the outfield, and a single. The Phillies fell, 6-5, suffering their third excruciating bullpen meltdown in the last 15 days.
And, yes, Girardi had some explaining to do, even to Knebel, the closer who pitched two days in a row and absolutely wouldn’t be sent to the mound for a third. Not by Girardi, who refuses to use relievers more than two days in a row until later in the season as a way of trying to keep them healthy.
“He had a really tough inning on Sunday, [Monday] he threw, it’s early in the year,” said Girardi, who met with Knebel in a hallway off the clubhouse. “I just ... no.”
OK, so Knebel wasn’t available. But what about Domínguez, who pitched Saturday, threw 11 pitches Sunday, and had Monday off?
“He needed another day,” Girardi said. “I mean, he’s had multiple innings. He wasn’t available.”
And why Nelson over Alvarado, the erratic lefty who nevertheless has some experience closing out tight games?
“Nick’s thrown the ball well,” Girardi said. “He threw the ball well in the eighth. If I go to Alvarado there and they tie it up, I’m in a big mess, right? And with the string of right-handers — they had five right-handers in a row coming up — I stuck with Nellie.”
Nelson said he was told ahead of time that he was going back into the game if the Phillies tied it or took the lead. Still, it all happened so quickly. Alec Bohm walked, Harper homered, and suddenly, Nelson was back on the mound with a 5-4 lead.
Not for long. Dansby Swanson lined a double to right field and went to third on a wild pitch. Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a fly ball to right-center that looked like a surefire game-tying sacrifice fly until it fell between Roman Quinn and Nick Castellanos.
“I’ve got to catch that ball,” Quinn said. “It was tough to hear. The crowd was going crazy. But I’ve got to catch that ball.”
Alvarado had begun to loosen in the bullpen by then. Righties are only 8-for-30 (.267) with a .333 slugging percentage against him this season. Last year, he held right-handed hitters to a .266 mark (33-for-124) with a .419 slugging percentage.
But Girardi stayed with Nelson. And with Acuña on second base, William Contreras lined a changeup to center field to drive in the winning run.
“I’m feeling not great,” Nelson said. “I don’t want to feel this way again. I hate this feeling.”
It’s one the Phillies know too well. They led the majors with 34 blown saves last season. Just this month, they blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning May 5 at home against the New York Mets and an early 4-0 lead May 15 at Dodger Stadium.
“We can’t keep doing it,” said Harper, who almost singlehandedly won the game for the Phillies with a game-tying double, an RBI single, and a homer in the last four innings. “We’ve got to win games. Baseball happens. You win, you lose, it’s part of the game. But a game like that, we’ve got to win a game like that.”
Norwood falters again
After tying the game in the sixth inning, the Phillies turned to the bullpen. And hard-throwing James Norwood promptly gave the lead back.
Norwood allowed a go-ahead solo homer on a full-count fastball to Matt Olson. The next three Braves batters reached base, too, and after Andrew Bellatti replaced Norwood, Acuña hit a sacrifice fly to open a 4-2 lead.
In 15 appearances, Norwood has an 8.53 ERA. With the Phillies carrying nine relievers, his spot in the bullpen may be in jeopardy, although he’s out of minor-league options.
The Braves took a 2-0 lead in the second inning against Kyle Gibson on successive two-out, two-strike RBI singles to left field by Swanson and Acuña.
But it would have been 3-0 if not for a defensive gem earlier in the inning by fill-in shortstop Johan Camargo.
With runners on first and second and one out, Camargo dived to his right to knock down Adam Duvall’s grounder, gathered the ball, and fired to second to get a force. The Braves challenged the play, but second-base umpire Chad Whitson’s call stood.
Give him a hand
J.T. Realmuto was briefly shaken up in the fourth inning after hitting his right hand on Austin Riley’s helmet while making a throw to second base to catch Ozzie Albies stealing.
Realmuto was examined by the trainer and flexed his hand but remained in the game.