Bailey Falter was in the Phillies’ dugout Monday night, watching from the top step in Cincinnati after recording half of his 12 outs with strikeouts. He was excellent in four relief innings, but his 66th pitch in a 12-4 loss to the Reds was singled to center with one out, which caused Joe Girardi to believe the left-hander was at his limit.
So Falter, who seems to be forcing his way into the starting rotation, could only watch from the dugout as another nightmarish game unfolded after the Phillies had entered the bottom of the seventh inning with a 4-2 lead. Girardi removed Falter for Neftali Feliz, who joined the team this weekend from triple A and had not pitched in the majors since 2017. Four batters later, he blew his first save in four years.
“We liked Neftali against that group of guys and it just didn’t work out,” Girardi said.
The Phillies have seven blown saves in their last six games, making nights like Monday almost seem predictable. Falter, a starter at triple A, had topped out earlier this month in the minors at 88 pitches. But the Phillies did not even let him reach 70.
“We just thought physically, he was done,” Girardi said. “I guess I could have [left him in], but then I would’ve had to let him face a couple more and I just wasn’t comfortable doing that.”
Feliz walked the first batter he faced and struck out the next before loading the bases with a hit batsman. Nick Castellanos followed with a grand slam, delivering the Phillies another late-inning gut punch. The Reds added six runs in the eighth inning. The Phillies are now four games below .500 and on pace to win just 77 games.
They have lost nine of their last 13 games and have had a lead in the seventh inning or later in their last four losses. Win those four and the Phils are four games over .500. That’s how brutal the late-inning collapses have been.
“I’ve said all along that this team has been pretty good about bouncing back the next day,” Girardi said. “But it’s extremely frustrating. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s really frustrating.”
The grand slam not only wasted what Falter did, but it washed away Alec Bohm’s and Ronald Torreyes’ two RBIs and Luke Williams’ heads-up hustle play to create a run. The Phillies scored twice in the fourth and fifth to take a two-run lead, but that wasn’t nearly enough. They went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position and left eight runners on base.
Falter pitched in relief of Spencer Howard, who was lifted after just 39 pitches when he allowed two runs in the third inning. The Phillies returned Falter to the majors earlier this month with the plan for him to pitch out of the bullpen in games started by Howard.
But Falter looks like the one who should be starting. He has 13 strikeouts and one earned run in 11 innings since returning from triple A. He throws a sharp slider and a low-90s fastball that looks faster to hitters because of the way Falter releases the ball. His deception makes him tough to hit.
The Phillies’ plan for Howard remains hard to gauge. He started for the first time in two weeks as his last appearance before Monday was as a mop-up reliever. He’s the team’s best pitching prospect, but his usage does not seem ideal for development.
“I think any pitcher would want to get in games frequently, but there’s still things that I know I’m going to take and build off of,” Howard said. “There’s still room for improvement.”
Howard retired the first five batters he faced and finished two scoreless innings before he started the third by walking the pitcher. Howard then face the lineup for a second time and did not make it past the third hitter. The Phillies could send Howard to triple A and allow him to right himself while Falter takes a crack at the starting rotation. With Howard, his development should come first.
“I’m here to pitch behind Spencer and come out of the bullpen,” Falter said. “If they want to throw me in the starting rotation, I’m absolutely fine with that. Whatever the team needs, I’m fine with that.”
Falter reached the majors in April but stayed with the Phillies for less than a week as an extra arm in the bullpen. So it felt different when he returned earlier this month with a more defined role. That role has a chance to now become even larger.
He retired eight consecutive batters from the fourth to the seventh inning before Alejo Lopez -- a pinch-hitter in the No. 8 spot -- singled with one out. Up to that point, Falter was cruising as he kept the Phillies afloat when their starter did not finish three innings.
“I was feeling good,” Falter said. “A little tired, but it’s the life coming out of the bullpen. I’m not really used to it. Trying to get a little feel for it. But I’m not going to question Joe Girardi’s decision. He saw something in the game and I’m completely OK with it.”
It would have been a good test for the 24-year-old rookie to pitch himself out of trouble. Instead, Girardi thrusted Feliz -- once one of the game’s premier relievers -- into the spot. He had not pitched in the majors in four years. And he fit right in with the Phillies on Monday night.