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Phillies’ bullpen blows another game after Zack Wheeler delivers an encouraging performance

The right-hander eased concerns about his mangled fingernail, but the relievers struck again in a 5-4 loss to the Mets.

Zack Wheeler throws a pitch in the second inning against the Mets on Wednesday.
Zack Wheeler throws a pitch in the second inning against the Mets on Wednesday.Read moreMatt Slocum / AP

After recording the first out of the eighth inning Wednesday night, Zack Wheeler turned the ball – and a one-run lead – over to Phillies manager Joe Girardi, who patted the right-hander on the chest in a gesture of appreciation for a gutsy effort.

Crisis averted?

As it related to Wheeler and his mangled fingernail, at least, it sure seems like it.

There’s no relief, however, from the Phillies' bullpen. And although Wheeler somehow held the New York Mets to three runs in 7⅓ innings six days after nearly ripping the nail off his right middle finger – and Mets ace Jacob deGrom left the game after the second inning with a right hamstring spasm – Adam Morgan gave up the tying run in the eighth inning, Hector Neris allowed the go-ahead run in the ninth, and the Phillies turned a four-run lead into a 5-4 loss, the latest in a season’s worth of late-inning crushers.

“These guys are doing the best they can right now,” Girardi said of a bullpen that has compiled a 7.05 ERA. “They are working. They are trying to fix it. It’s frustrating for them. It’s frustrating for us. Eventually you believe that it’s got to turn.”

It hasn’t turned yet, 48 games into a 60-game season. The Phillies are back to .500 (24-24), back to 1½ games behind the Miami Marlins for second place in the National League East and clutching the No. 7 seed in an eight-team playoff field.

Girardi will be second-guessed, no doubt, for lifting Wheeler after 95 pitches. But considering the events of the past week and the uncertainty over whether he would actually be able to pitch, Wheeler had done enough.

Besides, the top of the Mets' order was due to bat, and two innings earlier, Wheeler gave up a double to leadoff man Brandon Nimmo and a two-run homer to J.D. Davis to slice the lead to 4-3.

“Those were the guys that had success off of Wheeler tonight. That’s why we made the change,” Girardi said. “But I’ve been riding our starters a little bit harder. They’ve went 112 [pitches], 113. I have done that. But it was set up for Morgan to come in and get the two outs.”

Instead, the lefty reliever issued a two-out walk to lefty-hitting Michael Conforto. Davis followed with a game-tying double over leaping Adam Haseley at the right-field wall.

Wheeler said Girardi informed him before the eighth inning that he wouldn’t face the top of the Mets order again.

“That’s Joe’s call,” Wheeler said. “It’s his decision. It’s up to him. I’m not going to second-guess him. He’s been around a long time.”

With the game still tied in the ninth, Girardi went with Neris, who allowed a leadoff single, then dropped the ball and balked the go-ahead run to second base. Two batters later, Andres Gimenez lined a single to center field that scored pinch-runner Amed Rosario from second base.

“It’s baseball. Stuff is going to happen,” Wheeler said. “I can only control what I can control.”

Well, sometimes. Last week, Wheeler lost his balance while putting on a pair of jeans and ripped the already precarious nail on his right middle finger further off the skin bed. The Phillies couldn’t say if he would pitch again this season. Neither could Wheeler.

It was as gory as it sounded. As recently as Tuesday, Girardi said he was still too squeamish to look at it. But the Phillies' athletic trainers consulted hand specialists and brainstormed ways that Wheeler could pitch without losing the nail, which be the death knell for his season.

Wheeler put a hardener – he described it as a "fake nail” – over his finger to protect the nail from cracking. He played catch last weekend in Miami and threw a bullpen session Monday. Injured catcher J.T. Realmuto warned that Wheeler might have difficulty throwing at least one of his pitches. None other than Pedro Martinez said on MLB Network that he was “skeptical” that Wheeler could pitch deep into a game.

“I think everyone had a pretty big question mark on tonight on whether Zack was going to be able to do what he did,” catcher Andrew Knapp said. “I think it’s definitely a relief. For him to go out there and do what he did tonight gives us confidence moving forward that this finger thing is behind us.”

In his first start in nine days, Wheeler threw predominantly four-seam fastballs (55 out of 95 pitches). He sprinkled in a few two-seamers, sliders, and a handful of curveballs. Unable to apply the proper pressure to throw his changeup, his switched to a splitter, which he dabbles with in the bullpen but doesn’t always use in games.

“There’s a couple times where I could’ve thrown something that I wasn’t throwing today,” Wheeler said. “All in all, I thought my stuff was there. I was able to spin the curveball. I was mostly concerned about the slider, but I didn’t have a problem with any pitch today.”

Wheeler is lined up to make two more starts, including the second-to-last game of the season at Tampa Bay. The rotation is still ravaged by injuries to Jake Arrieta and Spencer Howard, but if the Phillies make the playoffs, a healthy Aaron Nola and Wheeler would give them a fighting chance in a best-of-three first-round series.

Well, if the bullpen doesn’t blow it for them.

“At this point we can’t feel bad for ourselves,” Knapp said. “We’ve got to go out and perform. The way this season has been, it’s kind of been that the whole way. If we worry about all of the bad stuff that’s happening, we could screw this thing up and not be ready for the opportunity that we have.”