Dig deep into Joe Girardi’s past and it makes you wonder how the Phillies’ manager has maintained his sanity through the season’s first 25 games.
During his four seasons (1996-99) as a catcher with the New York Yankees, he knew when the games got late and his team had the lead, the opponent was toast. The Yankees had the American League’s lowest relief ERA (3.72) in the American League and more saves (201) and a higher bullpen WAR (22.0) than any team in baseball.
During Girardi’s 10 seasons as Yankees manager, the bullpen was even better. From 2008 through 2017, his relievers compiled a 3.58 ERA – best in the American League – and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera from 2008 through 2013 converted 209 of 230 save opportunities while posting a 1.80 ERA. The stable of relief stars during Girardi’s tenure as manager also included David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.
Now, Girardi is in charge of the Phillies’ pick-your-poison bullpen and every button he pushed through the first month of the season seemed to be the wrong one.
Hector Neris was supposed to be his closer, but that hasn’t worked out. In nine appearances, he has almost as many blown saves (three) as innings pitched (6⅓), not to mention an 9.95 ERA. For now he is a project that Girardi keeps saying the Phillies “need to get big outs.”
Brandon Workman, acquired last week from Boston, is the closer, but his Phillies career started with two inauspicious appearances even though one of them ended with a save.
Girardi is hoping one day to have some of the luxurious options he had in New York and maybe Tuesday night was a first step in that direction as five of his relievers registered a dozen outs during an 8-3 win over the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals.
The encouraging night from the bullpen was forced by Mother Nature rather than necessity, but Girardi and the Phillies will take it.
“When you make additions and guys start to get on a roll, I think it can turn quickly,” Girardi said after the Phillies won their second straight following five straight losses. “You just have to build off it. When you use four or five relievers not everyone is always going to have a great night, but I thought all the guys threw the ball well tonight.”
It could have been a restful night for Girardi’s bullpen because starter Jake Arrieta was on his game and appeared ready to pitch into at least the seventh inning, if not deeper. After allowing a leadoff home run to Trea Turner in the bottom of the first, Arrieta allowed just two more hits and a walk and was through the fifth inning in just 54 pitches. He also had a 4-1 lead, thanks in large part to a three-run homer by J.T. Realmuto that took a fortuitous bounce off the top of the right-field wall before landing in the Nationals’ bullpen.
But then the rain started falling, the tarp went on the field and a long delay left Girardi with no choice other than to ask his relief corps to finish the game.
Newcomer Heath Hembree, who got five huge outs Sunday night in Atlanta, retired the first two batters he faced, but then surrendered a solo home run to Adam Eaton that cut the Phillies’ lead to two.
The Phillies’ clicking offense helped the pen plenty by tacking on single runs in the seventh and eighth innings and two more in the ninth. The run in the seventh came compliments of Roman Quinn’s speed, the second came on an RBI single from rookie Alec Bohm and Jean Segura put the game away with his third hit of the night, a two-run single.
Tommy Hunter relieved Hembree and gave the Phillies four outs, then let out some steam after the game.
“Same guy just different results,” Hunter said after lowering his ERA from 5.00 to 4.35. “We are giving everything we have. Sorry it’s not good enough, but it’s not like we’re giving more now because we’ve been getting a little bit of heat. We’re the same guys that are showing up with the same mindsets and the results are just working for us now.”
Girardi turned to Neris in the eighth in an effort to give the struggling reliever a confidence boost. Perhaps it worked. Even though Neris failed to get through the inning, he pitched well. He would have had a perfect inning if home-plate umpire Chris Conroy had not whiffed on a couple of calls. Instead, with runners at first and second and two outs, Girardi went for the lefty-on-lefty matchup and Adam Morgan recorded the biggest out of the night against the ultra dangerous Juan Soto.