WASHINGTON -- Ian Kennedy has been a relief pitcher for only three seasons after more than a decade as a starter. There are still some things, then, that he hasn’t experienced. Among them: pitching three days in a row.
So, although Kennedy said Tuesday that he was ready to go again after throwing 25 pitches Sunday in Pittsburgh and 24 here Monday night, and even though Joe Girardi said he would call on him if a save situation arose, the Phillies manager couldn’t actually do it. Not even with a one-run lead in the ninth inning at Nationals Park.
“I just made the decision, as I thought about it more and more, that I wasn’t going to use him,” Girardi said. “I think it was jeopardizing his health.”
Girardi makes those calculations daily. He gauges how the relievers feel and consults pitching coach Caleb Cotham, bullpen coach Dave Lundquist, and athletic trainer Paul Buchheit. But there are rules of bullpen management that Girardi considers sacrosanct. Most notably, he won’t use a reliever on back-to-back-to-back days, at least not until the last two months of the season.
Sometimes, Girardi’s philosophy runs counter to winning the game at hand and exposes him to second-guessing. If erratic lefty José Alvarado hadn’t closed out Tuesday night’s 5-4 victory over the Nationals while Kennedy sat in the bullpen, the sports-talk radio phone lines would have lit up on Wednesday.
But the rules served Girardi well in 10 years as manager of the Yankees. From 2008 to 2017, New York had a 3.58 bullpen ERA, best in the American League. And although it helped to have Mariano Rivera for six of those seasons, Girardi also got the best out of Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Adam Warren, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, and others.
It has been a rough couple of years with the Phillies, though. Last season’s historically bad bullpen posted a 7.06 ERA over 60 games and torpedoed the team’s chances of making the playoffs in an expanded field. This year, the Phillies have a 4.59 bullpen ERA and lead the majors with 25 blown saves. In spite of it all, they are 1 1/2 games behind the division-leading New York Mets in the NL East.
The Phillies’ bullpen is deeper now than it has been at any point in Girardi’s tenure. The addition of Kennedy last Friday in a trade-deadline deal with the Texas Rangers gives them four relievers with closer experience. Most of the time, Girardi should be able to keep Kennedy, Archie Bradley, Héctor Neris, and Alvarado rested without leaving the bullpen too short. Sam Coonrod and Connor Brogdon are also late-inning options when they return from the injured list.
There are signs, too, that Girardi is ready to ease his rules. Bradley became the first Phillies reliever this season to pitch three consecutive days when he came into Monday night’s game and got a big double play in the seventh inning before facing the middle of the Nationals’ order in the eighth. Neris got two outs in the eighth inning Tuesday night after pitching two innings one night earlier.
Is Girardi ready to remove the kid gloves?
“When you get closer to September, yeah,” he said. “And it’s going to be with the guys that have done it. A guy that’s done it in the past, you know that his body knows how to respond to it and he probably knows all the warning signs.”
Bradley appreciates Girardi’s caution. He just doesn’t think it’s necessary, at least in his case.
After missing time earlier this season with a strained muscle in his side, Bradley believes his arm is fresher than usual. His performance backs that up. He has allowed one run in his last 14 innings dating to June 30, and his average fastball velocity climbed from 93.9 mph in June to 94.8 mph in July. He touched 97 mph on Tuesday night.
“I’ll be the first to tell you I didn’t have the start to the season that I wanted to,” Bradley said. “For who the Phillies expected me to be when they signed me, I don’t think I really performed that way until the last month or so. But I’m here on a one-year deal. I’m here to help this team win. That’s why they brought me in, to help this bullpen.
“I’m a proven major-league arm. I’ve gone three in a row, I’ve gone four out of five -- and I’m ready to take on that burden and that role of pitching as much as I can to win this NL East.”
Girardi joked with Bradley that he will pitch him every day if his velocity keeps trending upward. But the manager still has his limits.
It’s doubtful he would’ve pushed Brogdon more than two days in a row even before he came down with elbow tendinitis. And after saying he will be “hesitant” to use Kennedy on back-to-back-to-back days, he proved it by telling him to sit down in the ninth inning Tuesday night.
“When I look at guys that I think may be capable, I would look at an Archie, a Héctor, probably an Alvarado,” Girardi said. “But sometimes I also worry about guys that are max-effort as opposed to command guys. You worry a little bit.”
For Girardi, it’s all part of running a bullpen that can help deliver a division title.