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Inside the Phillies: Bullpen woes affect Phillies starters

The return of Cliff Lee from the disabled list was more than a sliver of light in these darkest of days for the Phillies.

Cliff Lee's return is a big boost to a struggling Phillies team. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Cliff Lee's return is a big boost to a struggling Phillies team. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)Read more

The return of Cliff Lee from the disabled list was more than a sliver of light in these darkest of days for the Phillies.

It was more than a silver lining, too.

Watching this offensively inconsistent team that is short on sluggers, rail thin in the bullpen and challenged defensively, it's easy to forget that the Phillies' starting rotation is still the gold standard in the National League.

You might not want to hear that after another monumental bullpen collapse allowed the New York Mets to complete a three-game sweep Wednesday night with a 10-6 victory at an increasingly hostile Citizens Bank Park.

It was the third straight come-from-behind win for the Mets, and for the second straight night the sellout crowd was most notable for all its early exits.

"I could hit a home run off Contreras," one fan loudly opined on his way out immediately after New York's Ike Davis launched a three-run shot off reliever Jose Contreras that turned ugly into uglier. Ugliest arrived later when Hunter Pence dropped a routine fly ball in right field.

There's no doubt the bullpen with the worst ERA in baseball needs to be fixed and quickly, but it also remains reasonable to believe that this team is going to get better, mostly because the starting pitching is still the best in the league.

Not even Charlie Manuel wanted to hear that after this loss, and the manager spent most of his postgame media session explaining why it was finally time to hold a team meeting with his infuriating 14-18 team.

"After I watched that game, I felt it was necessary," Manuel said. "We're not playing the way we should play. We did quite a few things wrong if you watched that game. That was a very ugly game."

The most notable exception was the six innings of work by Lee, and that's the Phillies' biggest reason to still have hope.

Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels remain the most accomplished top three starters in baseball. When they finally get into a groove, the Phillies are capable of winning a lot of games and a lot of series. They are capable of saving this season.

"The guys you're talking about, they're very frontline tough pitchers," Manuel said. "I think they can handle a whole lot, and they will always give you that kind of effort."

Will that be enough for this team that has so many other deficiencies?

"So far, it hasn't been enough," Manuel said.

No, it certainly has not.

The most stunning statistic in these first five weeks is this one: The Phillies are 3-8 in games started by Halladay and Lee, including 0-8 in the duo's last eight starts.

Those numbers do not include the three starts Kyle Kendrick made in place of Lee while the lefthander was on the disabled list with an oblique strain. They were all losses, too.

So that means the Phillies are 3-11 in the games that were scheduled to be pitched by Halladay and Lee. That is a trend we can guarantee will not continue through this season.

Lee's winless streak probably would have ended Wednesday if the lefty had not been on a pitch count coming off the disabled list. Pitching coach Rich Dubee said Tuesday that Lee would throw around 80 pitches, and the Phillies stuck to it.

Lee left after six innings and 84 pitches. He allowed two runs on five hits, walked one and struck out six. He should have allowed only one run, but centerfielder Shane Victorino was too aggressive and played what should have been a single into a leadoff triple by Andres Torres in the top of the sixth inning.

Torres scored on a one-out bloop single by David Wright before Lee induced a double-play grounder from Scott Hairston to get out of the inning. Victorino's misplay was only the second worst gaffe of the evening and one of several disturbing defensive plays during the Mets' three-game sweep.

When the Phillies scored runs on an RBI double from Freddy Galvis and a pinch-hit single by Laynce Nix in the bottom of the sixth, Lee was in line to win for the first time this season. The bullpen made sure that Lee would have to continue standing in that line at least until his next start. But there was at least reason to believe that Lee should not have to wait too much longer for his elusive first victory.

Track records mean a lot in baseball, and Halladay and Lee are world-class horses who are always in the front when the race is over.

Before this season, the Phillies were a combined 76-33 in games started by Lee and Halladay, a .697 winning percentage.

"We need to have more than that," Lee said. "We need to have offense. We need to have defense. We need to have a bullpen. You have to play every aspect of the game well to win at this level. The starting pitching we have is good. It's definitely a positive. But that alone is not going to get it done."