Like so many plans the Phillies had this season, the one where they lined up aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola to each pitch twice during the final week of the season has failed.
It was a good plan and even the execution wasn’t bad, but still the Phillies have lost the last five games started by their top two pitchers, including Saturday night’s crucial meeting with the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. The 4-3 defeat pushed them to 28-31 with one game remaining and left them at the mercy of other teams to get into the postseason.
Wheeler took a 2-1 lead into the fourth inning, but gave up three runs with two outs in the bottom of the fifth as the Rays beat the shift with grounders through the infield to score the go-ahead runs.
“A couple of ground balls beat us,” manager Joe Girardi said after his team fell to 1-5 on its season-closing road trip. “The one pitch [Wheeler] would probably like to have back is the sinker down and away to [Mike] Zunino.”
That pitch resulted in a game-tying single to left field. Wheeler hit the next batter before giving up a go-ahead single to Brandon Lowe that went through a vacant hole at shortstop. Willy Adames tacked on a run with another single to center field.
“When you get a ground ball and you think it’s going to be an out and you turn around and nobody is there, that’s frustrating,” Wheeler said. “I really wasn’t able to minimize the damage there.”
Wheeler struggled beyond the fifth inning in each of his final four starts, allowing nine earned runs in nine innings while surrendering 14 hits and hitting four batters.
Still, it was clear that Girardi trusted his starter more than anyone in his bullpen late in this game. With the season on the line and Wheeler at 112 pitches, Girardi sent his starter out to begin the eighth inning.
“We knew we were going to push him and he was up for the challenge,” Girardi said.
But after Wheeler walked the leadoff batter in the eighth, Girardi turned to rookie Connor Brogdon to close out the inning. He did so with a flourish, striking out all three batters he faced.
“He’s taken some big steps this year,” Girardi said. “He struggled his first time out and he had one other outing where he struggled a little bit with the command of his cutter, but, for the most part, he has been pretty good since he’s come back.”
Actually he has been sensational in September, pitching 8⅔ scoreless innings while allowing just one one hit and two walks. He has struck out 14 batters this month.
Finally, a reliever Girardi can count on, but it appears he has found him way too late.
The worst thing about a bad bullpen, a baseball course Phillies fans have been forced to sit through in this thankfully shortened season, is that you can never feel comfortable about a lead, good about a rally, or confident that a tie ballgame is going to go your way.
Knowing it could all blow up in an instant when the grenade brigade starts loosening in the bullpen makes the entire experience of watching a baseball game unenjoyable.
Who or what is to blame for the persistent problem that has destroyed this season will ultimately be up to John Middleton to decide. For the second straight year, the Phillies' highly competitive managing partner is going to be disappointed by the return he is getting for his money. And for the second straight season, he’s going to have to decide if one of his most important employees needs to be fired.
If Matt Klentak’s fate is riding on what the 'pen did this season it’s hard to imagine the general manager still being employed at this time next week. Middleton took nearly two weeks last season to fire manager Gabe Kapler after the Phillies collapsed in September for the second straight year.
Now, Kapler is trying to push the overachieving San Francisco Giants into the final National League playoff spot while Klentak wonders how things could have gone so wrong with the bullpen.
The relief failures will be the story of this season and soon we should know if they lead to Klentak’s demise.