Pete Mackanin searching for middle relief options as starters struggle

Pete Mackanin searching for middle relief options as starters struggle

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin isn’t entirely thrilled with the resources at his disposal in the bullpen. You can’t blame him.

He doesn’t have too many complaints about his regulars in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Even though 23-year-old Edubray Ramos’ ERA shot up to 4.24 on Wednesday night following Adrian Gonzalez’s two-run blast off the righty in the seventh, his explosive fastball, sharp slider and 27-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio are all very impressive. Hector Neris’ 23 holds are fourth most in the NL, while Jeanmar Gomez’s 31 saves (in 34 opportunities) are fifth best in the league.

The problems arise when Mackanin can’t hand his bullpen a late-inning lead.

Luis Garcia and Andrew Bailey were recently designated for assignment. Bailey was released on Aug. 6 and signed by the Angels on Saturday.

David Hernandez, who labored through a scoreless inning Tuesday night, is a mediocre veteran on the wrong side of 30.

Michael Mariot has conceded three earned runs in five appearances for the Phillies. He also served up Chase Utley’s grand slam Tuesday night.

Severino Gonzalez has a 1-2 record and 4.50 ERA in 19 appearances this season. He’s shown solid command, with only three walks in 26 innings pitched.

Those guys have been getting a lot of work lately. Jake Thompson, who lasted five innings in Wednesday's 7-2 loss to the Dodgers (see game story), caused the Phillies to tie an ignominious team record; the Phils have not had a starter throw more than six innings for eight straight games.

Entering Wednesday’s game, the Phillies, since July 27, ranked last in Major League Baseball in starters’ ERA (6.95) and 29th in starters’ innings pitched (90 2/3).

Given the immense strain placed on the bullpen during that stretch, the team decided to send down Elvis Araujo and call up Frank Herrmann prior to Thompson’s start. Araujo was charged with six earned runs in a third of an inning Tuesday, walking three batters and hitting another with the bases loaded.

The 32-year-old Herrmann is a Montclair, N.J., native and Harvard grad who last pitched in the majors in 2012, for the Cleveland Indians. Mackanin didn’t know much about Herrmann before the game, but he was happy with the little information he knew.

“I know he didn’t give up a run all spring,” Mackanin said. "That’s what I’m looking for. That’s why we got him. He came in and I asked him, 'What do you throw?' He told me.”

So, what does Herrmann throw? He mainly relied on a fastball Wednesday that topped out at 95 mph, and also mixed in a few curveballs. After giving up a leadoff hit in the sixth to Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson, Herrmann got the next three outs with ease, inducing Howie Kendrick to fly out, striking out Scott Kazmir and forcing Utley to offer at a two-strike breaking ball in the dirt.

“I like what I saw from Herrmann,” Mackanin said. “I didn’t know he threw 95 … he looked like he’d been here before.”

Still, it’s obvious that Herrmann is a temporary solution for the Phillies, whose 4.47 bullpen ERA is 11th in the NL. Once the Phillies can expand their roster to 40 players in September, Mackanin shouldn’t have as many concerns about who to call from the bullpen when his starters falter.

“I know we’ll get arms in September,” Mackanin said. “Hopefully we won’t need any. We’re a little strapped right now, which is why we made the move. But I’d like to see as many [arms] as we can.

“The more we could see the better. We just need our starters to get out of that rut now where we’re not getting six, seven, eight innings. We’re trying to develop nine-inning pitchers. Too many high counts early in the game.”

Thompson couldn't end the rut because he once again lacked location. Despite excellent command at Triple A, Thompson’s control has been an issue in his three major-league starts. He threw 103 pitches (55 strikes, 48 balls) in his five innings, walking four.

As Mackanin explained, those sort of outings make his job very difficult.

“When you don't get length from your starters ... I don't have the luxury of having a situational lefty. I can't just bring him in for one hitter and get him out,” Mackanin said. “If the next guy who comes in doesn't get anyone out and throws 30-some pitches in two-thirds of an inning, then I have to go to the next guy. I don't want to go to Ramos, Neris or Gomez in a losing situation.” 

At the moment, the Phillies aren’t just lacking situational lefties; they don’t have any left-handed pitchers in their bullpen.

Araujo just got demoted. Rookie lefty Daniel Stumpf earned an 80-game PED suspension in April and failed in his brief second stint with the team, allowing eight hits and three earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. He was designated for assignment on July 22. Adam Morgan has two bullpen appearances this year, but will start on Friday. Brett Oberholtzer, who served as the Phillies’ long man, was sent down to Triple A on Aug. 6. The Angels claimed him off waivers on Aug. 9.

“Last winter, we talked about a situational left-hander,” Mackanin said. “From who was available and what we could get a hold of, we came to the conclusion that we could not afford to sign a strictly situational lefty. We needed a lefty who could also get right-handers out. That's why Stumpf was appealing at one point, because he had a good changeup. We're still in that mode. When you look around baseball, there's not a ton of really good left-handed specialists that are consistently getting lefties out — like (Javier) Lopez in San Francisco. But he gets righties out, too.

“If you have a right-hander with a good split or sinker who can get lefties out, it really doesn't matter.”

A righty dealing devastating changeups and baffling opposing lefties would indeed be a great alternative. Unfortunately, Mackanin doesn’t have anyone in his ‘pen that fits such a description. His setup man Neris, who possesses a dominant splitter and holds lefties to a .211 batting average, is the closest he has.

Wednesday was one of many nights in the past couple weeks that Mackanin has been forced to make tough decisions because of his starter’s early exit. You can tell he’d love a good, old-fashioned shutout sometime soon.

“When you're getting six, seven innings from your starters, you can maneuver your bullpen efficiently,” Mackanin said. “Keep them rested. We've had so many one-run games. What do you do in the eighth inning with a tie game? Do you bring in Neris hoping you're going to win? That's happened three days in a row, and we didn't have him when we had the one-run lead the next day. You have to be a fortuneteller.” 

At The Yard Podcast: Positives and negatives from Gabe Kapler this season

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At The Yard Podcast: Positives and negatives from Gabe Kapler this season

On this episode of At The Yard, Corey Seidman and Ricky Bottalico debate if the Phillies should try the "opener" strategy. If they do, which pitchers could possibly flourish in that role?

The guys examine Gabe Kapler's first year in Philadelphia. What has he done well? What will he need to improve?

Also, which non-Phillies stood out to Corey and Ricky around the National League? How a pair of Brewers would've looked really good with the Phillies.

1:00 - Should the Phillies consider the "opener" strategy?
7:30 - Are 40-man rosters too many players?
14:00 - The good and bad from Kapler's first year.
22:30 - Any carryover to next season from a good September?
25:00 - The non-Phillie that stood out to Corey and Ricky.

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Don't expect to see Vince Velasquez for long tonight vs. Braves

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Don't expect to see Vince Velasquez for long tonight vs. Braves

The Phillies send Vince Velasquez to the mound tonight to begin their crucial four-game series in Atlanta, but don’t expect to see him for long. It doesn’t fit with how Gabe Kapler has used the back of his rotation in September or with how Velasquez has pitched lately. 

Since Aug. 8, Velasquez has averaged under 4.0 innings per start. In seven games, he’s pitched just 25 1/3 innings. His last time out, he faced 10 batters. 

Velasquez’s numbers against the Braves earlier this season (0-4, 7.41 ERA) were ugly, but it’s a different situation this time. He isn’t being relied on to pitch six innings. He almost certainly will not be relied on to face the top of the order a third time through, especially with left-handed Freddie Freeman in the three-spot. 

Get ready for plenty of pitching changes tonight. However boring or monotonous it may be at times, it’s logical to have lefties face Freeman and Nick Markakis each time from the middle innings onward. Obviously, you want a righty in there for Ronald Acuña Jr. 

With a dozen men in the bullpen this month, the Phillies have averaged nearly 4.5 relievers per game in September. Bet the over on that number tonight. 

Everyone other than Pat Neshek should be available to pitch. Neshek has gone back to back games. He hasn’t pitched three straight nights at any point this season or last. 

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