It feels like forever ago when Pete Mackanin stared at the losing lineup card on the desk inside the visiting manager's office at Citi Field and lamented his broken bullpen. Everyone, the Phillies manager said, had tried too hard. The Phillies were 0-4, and their relievers lugged a 12.66 ERA.
A rebuilding team does not prioritize its bullpen, and this was the greatest fear for those around the Phillies: The young starting pitchers would not taste winning because of an inept bullpen. Good teams have good bullpens. Bad teams, well . . .
"Hopefully," Mackanin said April 6, "we don't have one-run games the rest of the year."
The Phillies lost their first two games, each by one run. They went 14-1 in the next 15 games decided by one run. The season is more than a quarter complete, so much can and will change. But if there is something to be learned from the first 41 games, it is this:
There is no one way to build an effective bullpen.
Jeanmar Gomez, an ordinary 28-year-old middle reliever who was the third choice to become closer, entered the weekend with 16 saves. The Houston Astros had 17 wins, none of them saved by Ken Giles.
The Phillies' current bullpen costs a little less than $10 million. They traded their three best relievers from a season ago and formed a unit filled with unproven arms, injury reclamation projects, and no one who throws harder than 96 mph. Most of baseball has followed the Kansas City model for building a bullpen - find three shutdown relievers who throw really hard. The New York Yankees will pay three of the game's best relievers $21 million this season to do just that. The Astros traded a handful of pitching prospects to acquire Giles, and did not install him as closer.
How did the Phillies do it? Luck is paramount. Relievers are so difficult to predict. That lends support to the idea of not devoting a great amount of resources to the bullpen.
In Gomez, who makes $1.4 million, the Phillies have a strike-throwing righthander with a cool demeanor. He is the poster child for the notion that you need not pay a pitcher with an attitude and imposing entrance song millions of dollars to pitch the ninth inning.
David Hernandez, who signed for $3.9 million, has hit his stride, two years removed from Tommy John surgery. His fastball velocity has crept higher with every appearance; Hernandez averaged 95 mph last week against Miami, pitching for the third time in three days.
Hector Neris developed an elite splitter that generates one of the higher percentages of whiffs in the majors. The Phillies always viewed him as a major-league arm, but one who lived on the fringes because he lacked a dominant out pitch. The splitter changed that; Neris could ascend to the closer's job later this season.
Entering the weekend, the Phillies had been outscored, 52-37, in innings seven through nine. But nine of those runs were allowed by James Russell, who was designated for assignment two weeks into the season. Eight more were charged to Brett Oberholtzer, the mop-up man.
Subtract those, and the Phillies had actually outscored opponents, 37-35, in the later innings. That is nothing short of incredible, given the bullpen fears at the conclusion of spring training.
"We have a lot of confidence in those guys," righthanded starter Jeremy Hellickson said. "Any time we can go six, seven innings and give it to those guys at the back - ever since the first series, they've been lights out. We have all the confidence in the world in those guys."
Yes, regression is possible. Gomez allows too much contact. Hernandez's elbow could hurt again. Neris' heavy workload could hinder the splitter's effectiveness.
In the coming weeks, the Phillies could add Michael Mariot and Mario Hollands to the middle-relief mix. Mariot, 27, a waiver claim from Kansas City last winter, was optioned to triple-A Lehigh Valley once he finished a rehab assignment for a sprained ankle. Hollands, 27, is returning from Tommy John surgery and would provide another lefthanded option.
Edubray Ramos, a 23-year-old relief prospect, has struck out 23 batters and walked just one in 221/3 innings. Promoted to triple A earlier this month, he throws in the mid-90s. He, too, could join the big-league bullpen in the summer.
Last week, Mackanin marveled at how his bullpen had become automatic with a lead. His relievers have flourished with set roles. The manager knows how volatile the situation is, so it's best not to overanalyze.
"It's like a broken record," Mackanin said. "And I'm happy that record is broken."