Less than 24 hours after blowing a late lead and enduring their most deflating loss of the season, the Phillies trotted back onto the field at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday evening with just 152 games left to make amends.
The reparations didn’t take place on this night, however, as starter Nick Pivetta failed to safely complete the fourth inning of what became a 15-1 loss to Washington, and the bullpen concerns of the previous night were replaced by some anxiety about the starting rotation.
Oh, well, 151 to go.
Part of baseball’s beauty is that each day and each game tells a small story, but the tale of a season only has meaning when all the days and stories are collected and bound for history to judge. That’s not how fans reflect on things when they drive home after a stinker, but it is true, anyway.
“The football fan mentality of scrutinizing game by game is probably the wrong way to look at it,” general manager Matt Klentak said during batting practice. “It doesn’t make it less frustrating, I get that.”
Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler both took pregame opportunities to paw through the still-smoldering embers of Tuesday night, mostly to defend the bullpen staff, which has been only sporadically effective to date, and the manager’s somewhat nontraditional philosophy on how to use his relievers.
Since coming to the Phillies, Kapler has shown no inclination to settle on a regular closer, something that generally annoys fans. Nine pitchers earned saves last season, but spreading around that responsibility didn’t seem to hurt the team. The Phils finished above the major league average for save percentage and below the major league average for number of blown saves.
Still, it was part of the narrative that Kapler is nothing but an analytics noodler who moves players around randomly, as indicated by his bullpen use and by the fantastic number of lineups and position changes he employed in 2018.
Judging by the start to this season, though, the guy might just be managing what he has instead of what he’d like to have. Finally given position players who deserve to be left alone, he’s leaving them alone. Maybe if he actually had a real closer, then he’d have a closer, too.
“With our lineup, we have the personnel where these guys have to play every day,” Kapler said. “If we had traditional personnel [in the bullpen], where it’s kind of a no-brainer … maybe if it was perfect, sure. [If we had] a sixth[-inning] pitcher, and two setup guys and a ninth-inning guy, we might go that route, but I don’t think that’s what our personnel suggests. We have a lot of guys who are more like Swiss army knives.”
Every now and then, of course, one of them will accidentally stab himself in the hand, and Klentak says that is to be expected. When Kapler rested Adam Morgan, David Robertson and Pat Neshak on Tuesday – each had worked three times in four days, a magic number for Kapler – the game eventually got around to Edubray Ramos, who surrendered a game-tying home run in the ninth; and Jose Alvarez, who gave up four runs in the 10th.
“I think Ramos made a good 2-and-2 pitch to a good hitter who hooked it and hit a home run,” Klentak said. “It’s exactly what happened against Minnesota, when Jose Berrios is dealing all night and made a good two-strike pitch to Rhys Hoskins and a good hitter took it out to left, and we won a game we could have lost. It’s very similar, and I think it’s going to be like that all year. If we’re down, we’ve got a chance to come back, and if we’re up, the other team has a chance to come back, and we should get used to that.”
Get used to it because, as Klentak said, there are a bunch of good teams in the National League (10 of the 15 are .500 or better). And get used to it, because he made it sound as if the bullpen won’t be changing much.
“I feel really good about the construction of our bullpen,” Klentak said. “Some key guys had tough outings in the first 10 days, but we’re not going to pitch shutouts every single night. I like the depth we have.”
The bullpen will be a lot better if the starters allow the manager to be sparing in its use, of course. So far, the starting pitchers are averaging 5 ⅓ innings per game. Getting those last 11 outs for a win doesn’t sound all that difficult, but Kapler has to mix and match his knives carefully, not overuse the sharper ones, and keep the dullards – like Tuesday night’s sacrificial arm, Juan Nicasio – seated in the bullpen.
It’s a balancing act, and sometimes the team will topple over. That happens. When the season is finished, and you put all the little stories together, a few falls here and there won’t matter. Keeping it to a few is the trick.