Blame the bullpen if you’d like for the doubleheader disaster the Phillies hurled at us Thursday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo. The team’s weakest link certainly bore some responsibility for the inexplicable turn of events that allowed the Blue Jays to rally in both games of their sweep of the Phillies at Sahlen Field.
Truth is, however, this despicable display of baseball was a team effort that sapped all the momentum the Phillies had mustered with the four-game winning streak that started last weekend with a three-game sweep of the New York Mets.
The Phillies lost the opener, 3-2, in walk-off fashion after building an early 2-0 lead and then watched a 7-0, first-inning lead evaporate in a 9-8 defeat in the second game as the Blue Jays scored seven runs of their own in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Struggling closer Hector Neris allowed the tying run to score on a wild pitch in the sixth before surrendering a two-run single to Rowdy Tellez, who had started the inning with a homer off starter Vince Velasquez. Rookie reliever Connor Brogdon had earlier surrendered a three-run homer to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. after walking the first hitter he faced.
Mixed into the mess were a couple of errors on routine plays that could have ended the sixth inning with the Phillies’ lead still intact. Second baseman Scott Kingery, who has six hits and two errors on the season, misfired on a play across the diamond for what should have been the first out of the inning.
With the Phillies still ahead, 7-6, shortstop Didi Gregorius botched a grounder hit right at him by Randal Grichuk, setting the stage for Neris’ wild pitch and Tellez’s game-winning single.
“It’s frustrating,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Really frustrating. 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. You have to get ready to play tomorrow.”
Under the circumstances, Girardi could not have put on a better public face, but you have to wonder if his patience is wearing thin, especially with the worst bullpen in baseball.
Brogdon had an 11.57 ERA when he came to the mound Thursday in the second game, but Girardi’s list of options were limited.
“Let’s see, I had Cole [Irvin], JoJo [Romero], Brogdon, [Reggie) McClain and Neris,” the manager said. “That was really what I had. So we were hoping we could stretch Vinny [Velasquez] as far as we could and then we might be able to turn it over to Hector. And we did get there.”
And that’s when they were hit by a mushroom cloud.
With the trade deadline 10 days away, Girardi was pressed on whether he wants general manager Matt Klentak to upgrade the relief options as soon as possible. The bullpen outlook was also hindered Thursday when Jose Alvarez, the team’s most effective reliever, left the first game after being struck by a line drive to end the sixth inning.
“Well that’s Matt’s job and people above me,” Girardi said. “So my job is to manage the players that they give me and to get the best out of them. We have to get it done with the guys we have right now. That’s the bottom line because that’s who is in the clubhouse.”
The other bottom line is that the Phillies are 9-12 just a few days after evening their record at 9-9 by winning the first game of this long road trip in Boston.
What made this doubleheader defeat even more debilitating was the fact that the Phillies got solid performances from the back end of their rotation. Rookie Spencer Howard showed off the ferocity of his fastball in what was the best of his three starts this season and Velasquez followed with a solid five innings after a shaky start.
Howard consistently hit his spots and had much better velocity, topping out at a season-high 97 mph. He allowed just a single run on five hits and struck out five batters in 3 ⅔ innings.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Howard said. “Still, that’s not the best I’ve been. But I made a few minor tweaks within the past couple days and I’m starting to feel a little bit better on the mound.”
In a normal season and a nine-inning game, Howard might have gone deeper, but Girardi turned to his bullpen in the bottom of the fourth with runners at first and third and two outs. The manager then watched as a 2-1 lead turned into a 3-2 loss as the Jays won on Gurriel’s walk-off single off Deolis Guerra in the bottom of the seventh that also included a costly error in center field by Roman Quinn.
As bad as the bullpen was and as inept as the defense was, the offense deserved its share of blame for the disastrous day, too.
Seven Toronto relievers combined to allow one run on five hits over 9 ⅔ innings in the two games. It was the kind of bullpen performance that had to make Girardi envious, but the manager would never publicly admit it.
“It’s just really frustrating because those are two games that we could have won and had some momentum going into Atlanta,” Girardi said.
Instead, they had nothing but a miserable flight from Buffalo awaiting them and more questions than ever about their bullpen.