IT TURNED OUT to be a good bullpen night: Antonio Bastardo got two strikeouts in the eighth inning and Chad Qualls followed him and got the third out, surviving a line drive that was caught by Hunter Pence in rightfield. Then Jonathan Papelbon — warming up in a save situation — still pitched the ninth after Placido Polanco's home run turned it into a non-save situation.
But it was one night. And, well, put it this way: if the Phillies expect to do any damage in October, they will need to acquire a power bat and fix their bullpen. But if they harbor a hope of even seeing October, fixing the bullpen is non-negotiable. So we begin there.
The hitting has improved in the last week or so, from inadequate to not completely inadequate. (You have to start somewhere, after all.) There is probably reason to expect some more improvement, too — maybe to somewhat adequate. But that's about it. Even if Ryan Howard is Ryan Howard again, and pretty immediately after his return, they are still likely to need a power bat if the post-season is not to be a place where their aspirations, along with their baserunners, go to die.
But the relief pitching, worst in the National League by any number of statistical measures, will have to come first. Asked Monday afternoon, before the Phillies' 5-1 win over Houston, if the bullpen was the area of his primary critical focus, Phils manager Charlie Manuel hemmed and hawed for a second but then acknowledged that it was.
Even if nobody quite says it out loud, they all know they are going to have to do something. The next few weeks are essentially an extended audition for the bullpen, after which the Phillies will know if the surgery they require is minor, major, or radical.
(Early guess: major.)
Papelbon is a fixture. Bastardo is staying, in some capacity or another, and so is Qualls. But the latter stages of the seventh inning and the entire eighth inning remain lawless places, and nobody on the Phillies' roster has been able either to claim them or tame them on a consistent basis. It has to happen at some point, or this will be one splendid bonfire come September.
So, without further adieu, we have the usual suspects.
Jake Diekman? Raul Valdes?
Both arrived from Lehigh Valley on May 11, with the team in mid-emergency, but neither has yet appeared in a game. The Phils have to find out if either of them can play a role here before making their next move.
"First of all, we have to get Diekman and Valdes in some games," Manuel said. "I'm sure we'll get the chance, and we'll see exactly how they do and what they've got. We'll just kind of go from there, when we start getting to see people. And the ones we have, we'll try to help them and get them right."
Which brings us to, Jose Contreras?
Following right elbow surgery last September, the veteran has yet to find himself. Contreras has allowed runs in four of his 10 appearances. He couldn't get through an inning on Sunday against San Diego. The question to Manuel saw simple enough: how long can you keep running him out there?
"I think, every now and then, he shows his stuff is still there," Manuel said. "But the inconsistent part, I think, eventually … something will have to be done about it. But we still think that we can get him right."
He offered no timetable. Which bring us to Bastardo, who was so good last season and who has yet to duplicate that performance in 2012. He has allowed runs in two of his last eight appearances, but has yet to throw as hard as last season.
"He's going to get his velocity back," Manuel said. "I can see his arm getting quicker."
One other name: Kyle Kendrick. They threw him out there in the seventh inning last week and he got rocked. Manuel said he wasn't completely closing the door on using him again in that kind of situation, but there was only a speck of daylight between the door and the jamb.
"I look at Kyle as a spot starter, long man, and the guy that you use at the end if you need innings," he said. "That's kind of how I look at him … Rich [Dubee, the pitching coach], at times, he thinks he can pitch in situations in the pen but we've got to see it."
It really is true with all of them — and that includes Mike Stutes, currently on the disabled list with a bum shoulder. There are some possibilities, yes. And there is still time, for sure.
But with each passing week, the likelihood that they will be able to get this done in-house decreases. Still, this was a good night. n
Contact Rich Hofmann at email@example.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich. For recent columns go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.