THE PITCHING change came one batter too late, not because the manager spent the night huffing paint, but because his best option was in Indianapolis with his socks pulled high in a Triple A bullpen. Nobody knows if Jake Diekman would have made a difference in the Phillies' latest late-game meltdown, but the 25-year-old lefty at least has the potential, which is more than you can say about the majority of Charlie Manuel's options right now.
"That'll come up sooner or later," Manuel said Tuesday night after the Phillies blew a three-run lead with two out in the seventh inning in what ended as a 7-4 loss to the Mets. "We saw him in spring training. He was very good. I look at our [minor league] game reports every day. Our bullpen has to pitch better. Quite a bit better."
Hey, blame the manager if it makes you feel better, but the guy is operating in a "Choose Your Own Adventure" in which every adventure ends in certain death. Heading into Tuesday night's come-from-ahead loss, Phillies relievers ranked dead last in the National League with a 4.86 earned run average. The damage has been limited to a National League-low 70 1/3 innings, but a healthy chunk of those innings has been high-leverage innings, which over the last few weeks has cost the Phillies a healthy chunk of games.
The only kind of management that can fix what ails this Phillies bullpen is roster management. Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee simply do not have the bullets they need to routinely protect the types of leads they will endure given an offense that must form a conga line on the basepaths before it can push a run home.
Take Tuesday night, for example. With two out in the seventh inning, Joe Blanton allowed a single to Andres Torres that put runners at first and third. With lefthanded-hitting outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis at the plate representing the tying run and Blanton having already thrown 102 pitches, the situation screamed for a lefty reliever with strikeout stuff who could send the game into the eighth inning, where lefty Antonio Bastardo and righty Chad Qualls would at least have a clean inning to work with as they tackled the heart of the Mets' order. Manuel could have gone with Bastardo, who had allowed just one hit and three walks with five strikeouts in 16 plate appearances against lefthanded batters. But that would have required either leaving him in the game to face righthanded star David Wright to start the eighth, or replacing him with Qualls, who then would have faced three straight lefthanded hitters (lefties crushed Qualls in 2010 and 2011 and were 6-for-15 with two home runs and two walks this season).
The other options: lefty Joe Savery (two home runs, two walks, two strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings) and righties Jose Contreras (9.53 ERA while still getting back in the groove after a long stint on the DL), Michael Schwimer (6.35 ERA, two strikeouts, four walks, 5 2/3 innings) and Brian Sanches (four earned runs, two walks, two strikeouts in three innings).
Savery and Schwimer are Triple A guys who just happen to be in the big leagues. Sanches started the year at Lehigh Valley on a minor league contract. Contreras has a big arm, but he is 40 years old and coming off flexor tendon surgery.
The fact is, Phillies relievers have averaged a pitiful 6.91 strikeouts per nine innings this season, easily the worst rate in the league. That's the mark of a bullpen that does not have the kind of stuff necessary for success in late-and-close situations.
In that seventh inning, Manuel ended up sticking with Blanton against Nieuwenhuis, who knocked an RBI single into rightfield. Manuel then called on Qualls to face Wright, who tied the game with a two-run single. The go-ahead run scored on a throwing error on a rundown play by Pete Orr, who Manuel has been inserting into the lineup with the hope that he can provide a little more pop than struggling rookie Freddy Galvis.
Whether or not Diekman ends up establishing himself as a setup man, he has the plus fastball and improving slider it takes to fill the role.
"Jake's thrown well for us - he's done a nice job," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said on Monday. "We've put him in a couple different spots where he's closed, he's pitched a couple of innings, he's set up. He's getting pretty valuable experience at a high level. He's done a nice job for us."
Is it getting to the point where he is worth a look against major leaguers?
"He's certainly a candidate for us at some point," Amaro said, "but right now we are going to go with the guys that we have, and when it's time for him to be in the big leagues, he'll come."
Whether Amaro still holds that view this morning remains to be seen.