ATLANTA - Around 9:15 Tuesday night, Antonio Bastardo tugged on his cap and climbed on the mound that helped vault him into prominence. You remember that game, don't you? It was 13 months ago, April 8 at Turner Field, the Phillies trailing 6-3 in the top of the sixth, the game destined to end in a garden-variety, early-season loss.
In terms of leverage and pressure, it was one of the more inconsequential appearances Bastardo would log last season. But when you consider the impact it had on the evolution of the Phillies' bullpen, it meant everything.
After allowing a leadoff single to Chipper Jones to start the sixth, Bastardo struck out the next six batters he faced, all of them swinging. Brian McCann went down on a fastball that clocked in at 94 mph, Alex Gonzalez on a pitch that registered 95, Dan Uggla, Jayson Heyward and Freddie Freeman on sliders, all of it ending with Tim Hudson waving feebly at a fastball.
At the time, Jose Contreras still was the Phillies' closer. Ryan Madson still was the setup man. Brad Lidge still was on the disabled list working his way back to what he thought would be a spot in the back of the bullpen. Bastardo seemed an afterthought.
But things changed. They always do. Six months later, Bastardo was the automatic choice to protect a lead in the eighth inning of a tight game. His numbers placed him among some of the best relievers in the game.
Now . . .
Now, you watch the Phillies in a situation like the one they encountered Tuesday night and you aren't sure where they will choose to turn. Tie game, seventh inning, Cole Hamels pulled after 108 pitches, the final three innings in the hands of the bullpen. This time, the call went to Bastardo, and the lefty came through. Two fly outs and a strikeout, a fastball that sat 91-92. None of it was as impressive as the displays he produced with regularity last season, but at the very least you saw a little of that rhythmic swagger that once upon a time made you think the eighth inning was over before it started. Except that Tuesday night, it was the seventh inning, and that's kind of the point we're getting at.
Right now, we know less about the Phillies' bullpen than any other aspect of the team. The starting pitching? You know what you have. The lineup? Same goes, for better or for worse. The bench? Looks a bit like the lineup. One day, tomato, the next day, to-mah-to.
But the bullpen? What do we really know? We know that Jonathan Papelbon is as advertised: legit, nasty, a resident of his own little world of dominance. We will have the next 3 or 4 years to debate whether the Phillies were wise to give him $12.5 million per year. For now, all that matters is that Ruben Amaro Jr. can breathe easy as executives across the game watch their rent-a-closers with eyes covered and jaws clenched. Tuesday night, Papelbon recorded his ninth save in as many attempts, exerting almost as much effort on his celebratory fist pump as the three outs that led to it. Is Heath Bell at 3 years and $21 million or Joe Nathan at 2 years and $14 million any worse than Papelbon at his price? Again, hold that thought.
Instead, tread toward the earlier innings, the seventh and the eighth, the frames that made this Phillies juggernaut such a formidable force during its formative years.
In 2008, you saw Chad Durbin and J.C. Romero step up. In 2009, it was Chan Ho Park. In 2010, Contreras. Last year, Bastardo and, to a lesser extent, Mike Stutes.
"So far, you'd have to throw [Chad] Qualls in there, wouldn't you?" Charlie Manuel said after the Phillies finished off a 4-2 victory over the Braves.
And you would. Except, right now, Qualls is the second man on the totem pole. One night after allowing two runs to tied the game, the veteran righthander bounced back to pitch a scoreless eighth. Yet Manuel cannot live on Qualls alone, just as he did not live on Madson alone, or Lidge alone. A good bullpen is like a third-and-15 coverage scheme: three-deep. Park, Durbin, Contreras all were big strikeout arms the Phillies leaned heavily upon.
One month into the season, the identity of that option remains unclear. Contreras, newly active after flexor tendon surgery, still needs to prove he can handle the consistent grind of high-leverage situations. Bastardo needs to prove he can locate consistently and pitch with authority with a repertoire that lacks some of its sizzle from a year ago.
"Bastardo and Conteras, they're the ones who are going to be in that role," Manuel said. "Bastardo did a good job tonight. We need to get [Contereras] and Bastardo some work on a regular basis. They have to stay sharp. We need to get them work where they can do that."
The only point: As drama-free as the late innings have been, they remain the biggest subplot on the team. For at least 1 night, though, the result was what you need to see.
Read his blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.