MILWAUKEE — Dave Dombrowski has been away from Philadelphia for more than a week, but he could still feel the angst in the city over the Phillies’ decision to drop a traditional starting pitcher from their rotation and deploy a cast of relief pitchers every fifth day.
“It’s funny,” said Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations.
The Phillies’ decision to utilize a “bullpen game” instead of a fifth starter is unconventional in Philadelphia but it is becoming more accepted elsewhere. The Tampa Bay Rays, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers are three of the teams that have opted for the strategy this season and they own the three best records in baseball.
So the Phillies, who used a bullpen game for a win on Sunday and will try it again Friday against the Colorado Rockies, don’t see a reason it won’t work for them.
“If you’re in a position where you think that gives you the best chance to win, then it seems to make sense,” Dombrowski said. “I’m sure there’s a better player here, a better player there, but our guys have the same abilities that their guys have. They claim a lot of guys off waivers and put them in there and use them and then boom, send them back out. They do it and have a plan and have a thought process behind it.”
The Phillies entered Wednesday’s series finale in Milwaukee trailing the Atlanta Braves by 2½ games in the National League East and behind the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres for the NL’s second wild card. Their final 24 games come mostly against losing clubs, but the Phillies still have obstacles to clear before returning to October.
And none seems larger than the questions about their starting rotation. Zach Eflin is expected to miss the rest of the season, Aaron Nola has not been sharp, and Ranger Suárez is dealing with arm discomfort that the Phillies continue to downplay.
The bullpen game adds a new wrinkle of concern. They tried to replace Eflin in the rotation with Matt Moore, but he struggled. Chase Anderson, another option, was released. So the Phillies will ask their relievers to be starters.
It worked on Sunday in Miami when the Phils used nine relievers to cover 10 innings of a one-run win over the Marlins. As long as the rotation stays on turn, the Phillies will need that formula to work five more times this season.
The Phillies have 16 pitchers on staff, which is how many they’ll likely carry for the rest of the season. If needed, they can send pitchers to triple A for fresh arms before a scheduled bullpen game.
Dombrowski said general manager Sam Fuld has taken the strategy on almost as a personal project as he works with the triple-A staff to make sure it knows what pitchers to avoid in case the Phillies need relief. This month will require the Phils to be creative.
“Bullpen games can work really well,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We only gave up three runs in that bullpen game and they only should have given up two. You can do some things. Sometimes it’s necessary. I’m not against it. To do it consistently you have to have depth and you have to have the right pieces.”
The bullpen this season has a 4.55 ERA and a franchise-record 29 blown saves, but certain relievers have shown signs of dependability in recent weeks. Dombrowski pointed to six — Ian Kennedy, Archie Bradley, Héctor Neris, Connor Brogdon, José Alvarado, and Sam Coonrod — he would use to protect a lead.
Those six likely can’t cover nine innings, but Moore — who pumped 95 mph fastballs Monday in his first relief appearance since losing his rotation job — and Bailey Falter — who has been better recently after recovering from the coronavirus — could help by pitching multiple innings. The strategy might be new, but it has a shot.
“I think it will be dependent on who we’re facing,” Dombrowski said. “It’s amazing how different that is depending on how their lineups look. Left-handed, right-handed, how our guys are throwing, what’s their best pitch, how do they match up. We’re doing all those things. Very much so. It could be somebody where we say, ‘Hey, let’s use the opener for three,’ or ‘Let’s bring in a guy after an inning for three.’
“But for us, it’s going to be very dependent — we’ve already talked about the difference between facing Colorado and Miami and how the lineups differ and all that. I talk to Sam about it every day.”
For now, the Phillies’ final bullpen game is scheduled for the second-to-last game of the season. Girardi said Tuesday he doesn’t see a way to avoid that. If the Phillies hang around the playoff picture, that game in Miami could be the one that decides if they return to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Three games in Miami will already be hard to stomach as the Phillies have struggled there in recent seasons. Adding a bullpen game to the mix will make that angst even greater.
“We just feel that it gives us the best chance to win right now,” Dombrowski said.