BALTIMORE — In the corner of an emptying clubhouse, Jonathan Papelbon sat in a metal folding chair and hastily stuffed his belongings into a red duffel bag. That it was his most significant workload of the afternoon should not come as a surprise. True, the Phillies' bullpen inherited a tie game in the seventh inning. True, that bullpen was operating with one of its setup men unavailable and the other on a short leash. True, that bullpen already had recorded nine outs and was facing the heart of the Orioles' order in the bottom of the 10th. But the $50 million closer never threw a pitch. Because the Phillies were on the road.
All of this makes sense to the succession of managers who helped develop the group-think that now dictates when and where the most talented and highest-paid reliever in a bullpen should be used. Certainly, it makes sense to Charlie Manuel, who defended the strategy as gospel after the Phillies suffered their eighth loss in nine games, all but one of the losses occurring without an appearance by Papelbon.
"I remember when I first came here, you guys used to second-guess the hell out of me when I had [Billy] Wagner," the manager said when grilled on the strategy, which led him to use a low-on-the-totem-pole lefty like Joe Savery against the righthanded hitting heart of the Orioles' order instead of a $12.5 million-a-year righty like Papelbon. ''But still, you don't play that way. If you are going to keep your closer healthy, and you are going to use him in winning situations in the game, you do not do that."
The problem lies in the definition of "you." When "you" is a team that has a strong bullpen with multiple setup-type, swing-and-miss arms in front of its closer, then the strategy that Manuel and most managers use with their closer is a sensible one. Even if Papelbon were to pitch a scoreless inning in a tie game on the road, and the offense was able to take the lead in the top half of the following frame, the Phillies would still need somebody to close out that win. Which means a guy like Savery would still need to throw a scoreless inning to seal the victory. Which makes sense if a manager has a reasonable belief that a guy like Savery will end up succeeding. All things being equal, save the closer for the save situation.
But nothing about the Phillies' bullpen is equal this season. At this time last year, Savery was playing first base in ''A'' ball and contemplating his postcareer education options. He has spent some of the season at Triple A, and the rest of it as the long man out of the bullpen. Even when you grant managers and pitching coaches their belief that a save situation is a "different animal," it can't be so different that an inexperienced lefty who lacks plus-level stuff is better off in a tie game against a No. 2 hitter, a No. 3 hitter and a cleanup hitter than he is with a lead against hitters Nos. 5 through 7.
All that being said, the Phillies are not 29-33 today because of Manuel's strict adherence to the conventional wisdom about closer usage. They are 29-33 because they are not a very good team today.
You can lose yourself in the details, reduce each loss to the sum of its parts, convince yourself that all of this might play out differently the next time around, but the fact remains that decision-making can only take a team so far. The headline is still that the better bullpen held the lead for longer, and the better lineup came up with the bigger hits, and the better defenders made the more crucial plays.
Over the course of a 162-game season, the teams with enough talent tend to prevail while the teams without it tend to fixate on things like injuries and umpires and managerial decisions. More than a third of the way through a season is more than enough time to say the Phillies simply do not have the talent to regularly avoid losses like the ones they suffered this weekend at Camden Yards.
The point isn't that Papelbon was Manuel's best option. The point is that the second- and third-best options were Michael Schwimer and Joe Savery, two players who entered the day with 38 career appearances and a 4.48 career ERA and middling strikeout and walk rates. Meanwhile, the Orioles were able to complement closer Jim Johnson with a pair of experienced arms like lefty Troy Patton and righty Darren O'Day, who entered the game having combined for 260 career appearances and a 2.28 ERA.
The point is that the outlook does not get any rosier, not after watching an opponent celebrate a walkoff victory for the seventh time this season. The offense is not good enough to consistently come up with big hits (they stranded 11 on Sunday), the defense is not good enough to consistently save runs (the winning run reached base on Ty Wigginton's ninth error of the season), and the bullpen is not good enough to dull the impact of those mistakes.
The Phillies need more talent, and they need it before Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Roy Halladay return.