Oh, what a relief bullpen has been
Lidge tops off another splendid effort by back end; Utley hits another HR, dazzles in field
TWENTY-ONE different players threw at least one pitch out of the bullpen for the Phillies last season, so do not be ashamed if you fail to recall one or two or three of them.
Guys like Kane Davis (11 1/3 innings), Yoel Hernandez (15 1/3 innings) and Anderson Garcia (two-thirds of an inning) moved onto the roster, into games and then back out of town, like a conga line at a wedding reception, except that not even copious amounts of alcohol could make this procession bearable.
But last night, as the intro music blared and the closer shook his shoulders and strode to the mound, it was clear that all of that had changed.
Brad Lidge punctuated the night by striking out two of his three batters to earn his 14th save in a 5-4 win over the Reds, but it was the other faces in a rejuvenated bullpen - namely Chad Durbin and Tom Gordon - who once again put him in a position to do so.
"It's just one of those things where it's real exciting to pitch right now," said Lidge, who capped off a night in which the bullpen held a one-run lead for 3 1/3 innings, giving the Phillies their seventh win in eight games, "and it's real exciting to watch our other guys. That kind of pumps me up, too, when the other guys are doing what they are doing."
Granted, relief pitching isn't the sexiest way to open a tale about a game that featured five home runs, a collision at the plate, and plenty of slick glove work in the field.
So it is worth noting:
* Chase Utley hit his 21st home run, putting him just one shy of his entire total from last season. The two-run shot came in the first inning and gave him 52 RBI for the season. The second baseman, who was named the National League's Player of the Week prior to the game, hit a home run for the fifth straight game, tying the franchise record that he had already tied earlier this season. Only three other players - Dick Allen in 1969, Mike Schmidt in 1979, and Bobby Abreu in 2005 - had accomplished that feat, and none had done it more than once in their careers.
* Utley enhanced his image as a grinder by making two diving stops of line drives - including one off the bat of Joey Votto with two outs in the ninth that ended the game - and knocking Cincinnati catcher David Ross backward with his left shoulder in a collision at the plate in the third inning. Utley was out on the play - third-base coach Steve Smith appeared to hold up a stop sign at the last minute - but Utley didn't go down without a fight.
"I was trying to jar it loose," he said. "I really had no other play."
* Pedro Feliz and Chris Coste hit back-to-back home runs in the fourth - Feliz' was a two-run shot; Coste's came with the bases empty - to give the Phillies a 5-1 lead.
But for all of the fireworks that occurred throughout the course of the game, they all would have been in vain if not for the work of the pitching staff at the back end of the game.
After righthander Kyle Kendrick allowed two of Cincinnati's first three batters to reach base in the sixth, manager Charlie Manuel pulled him from the game despite Kendrick having thrown just 70 pitches. Kendrick, who said later he understood the decision, had allowed solo home runs to Edwin Encarnacion and rookie sensation Jay Bruce earlier in the night and had several other balls hit hard, prompting Manuel to put the final 3 2/3 innings in the hands of his bullpen. Last year, he might not have made the same decision, thanks to a bullpen that finished the regular season ranked 13th in the National League with a 4.41 ERA. Though J.C. Romero, Gordon and Brett Myers all turned in solid individual efforts in the Phillies' run to the division title, the rest of an injury-plagued relief staff was a question mark for most of the season.
This year, that isn't the case. Phillies relievers entered last night with a 2.71 ERA, by far the best mark in the National League. Six of the seven arms in the bullpen - Lidge, Gordon, Durbin, Romero, Ryan Madson and Rudy Seanez - have an ERA under 4.00, and four have an ERA under 3.00.
Durbin, who at the beginning of the year still was trying to make the mental transition from starter to reliever, dropped his ERA to 1.80 last night. Though he gave up a double to Adam Dunn that scored two runs in the sixth - both were charged to Kendrick - he struck out Encarnacion to end the inning.
For the next three innings, the bullpen gingerly nursed a 5-4 lead. Durbin, Gordon and Lidge retired 10 of the last 11 batters they faced, improving the Phillies to 34-25.
"Our bullpen is deeper, and we've got more talent in our bullpen," Manuel said.
Kendrick allowed four runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings, improving to 5-2 while seeing his ERA rise to 5.00. The Phillies have won eight of his last nine starts and are 9-3 overall when he pitches.
"The bullpen did a good job," Kendrick said. "That's a good win right there." *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.