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The puzzle that is the Phillies' middle relief

Trying to figure out how to make the front of the Phillies' bullpen work is a riddle without a solution right now.

A good team often hangs its collective hats on doing a few things well enough to overcome its flaws. A mediocre team may be good in one area, but maddeningly inconsistent or just plain bad in others. And a bad team, well they're just plain ugly.

The Phillies have hovered around mediocrity this season only because a few pleasant pitching surprises have compensated for some unpleasant ones. Kyle Kendrick's effectiveness has offset the ineffectiveness of tonight's starter, Cole Hamels. And after allowing just two runs over seven innings in Sunday's 3-2 victory over the Reds, Jonathan Pettibone continues to be a huge improvement over the 2013 version of Roy Halladay, as strange as that sounds.

Incredibly, the Phillies have not played themselves into as huge a hole as a daily viewing of their efforts would suggest, entering tonight's games only 4 ½ games behind the first-place Braves. But those are some thin sticks to try and stay afloat on, especially under the weight of a resume-rich lineup that has paradoxically performed even more feebly than the injury-riddled one that precipitated a trade deadline selloff last July.

The Phillies have scored two runs or less in 17 of their 44 games this season, barely missing an 18th Sunday. . Besides torturing their still devoted public – crowds of over 40,000 are announced for nearly every game – the offensive inertia has heightened the impact of every miscue.

It's also exposed their collection of middle relievers who, like the lineup, has underperformed given expectations entering spring training. Chad Durbin has been a mess, Antonio Bastardo an unsolvable riddle. The Phillies bullpen has allowed nearly half of their inherited baserunners to score (46.3 %) this season, the Major League's worst.

``Right now they're not doing their jobs,'' Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said before Bastardo and Justin DeFratus gave them two scoreless innings on Sunday. `` So what's the best recourse? Do we get them down to Triple A and get them their reps and back on track and get them their confidence back and get them rolling? That's a possibility. We have a lot of flexibility that way. Almost every one of these guys can go up and down. We can option them and bounce them around. And it's something we're considering doing. Because if the guys don't start stepping up and pitching better, we've got to make us better.''

If Amaro is looking for models, he need only look at the last two teams to knock his from the postseason. The 2011 Cardinals did a near-complete midseason overhaul of their bullpen, dumping Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista in late June, dealing for relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel near the trade deadline, picking up Texas castoff Arthur Rhodes in August, trying out closers all season long until they settled on ex-catcher Jason Motte in September. After edging the Phillies in that five-game NLCS, St. Louis relievers actually logged more innings than starters in their defeat of the Brewers in the National League Championship Series.

Tony LaRussa made 28 pitching changes in that series.

In 2010, the Giants bolstered their bullpen at the trade deadline by adding Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez at the deadline.

In none of the above cases was the current club compromised.

Was this a matter of due diligence or dumb luck? ``Probably, a combination of a lot of things,'' said Amaro. ``One, good decisions by the general manager; two performances by the players; and three, luck.

``Sometimes you've got to get performance from people you don't necessarily expect to get performance from. Sometimes we might benefit from some change. Putting some guys in situations where you don't think they may do the job but certainly can. And do. That's part of the combination.''

Two seasons ago, that was Bastardo and Michael Stutes, who has shown signs of being his old self down at Triple A recently. It's still early, but this season's find might be the 25-year-old DeFratus, who hasn't allowed a run since being recalled from Lehigh Valley on May 10. And perhaps, just perhaps, lefthander Jeremy Horst.

But that's not likely to stabilize things, especially if Mike Adams' balky back becomes a miniseries rather than an episode. A 2011 version of Stutes would help greatly, as would a more consistent Bastardo. But again, thin sticks to float on.

One of the great tests of the modern General Manager is his midseason acumen, or ability to adjust on the fly. It's a big reason why Amaro Jr.'s predecessor, Pat Gillick, is in the Hall of Fame. Amaro'sbig midseason acquisitions of Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence were huge in the Phillies reaching the postseason in the three seasons he followed in Gillick's footsteps. But those seventh and eighth innings have been a funhouse for too much of it.

Some of that has to do with starters, including Halladay and Hamels, not pitching deep into games. Much of that has to do with a diminished offensive capability. Improvements in both areas should take some heat off the middle relievers, but the idea that a shuttle service between Allentown and Philadelphia is a complete solution… well, that's more hopeful than realistic.

Amaro is a hopeful guy. He'd like to find it internally. As Durbin and Chad Qualls before him have proven, resumes are sometimes fickle predictors. ``If there is a guy out there who we feel can help us, can give us a little bit more of a veteran presence, then sure,'' he said. ``I like veteran guys. I'd rather have young pitchers and veteran relievers. We have a little bit of the opposite, especially in the middle.''