With at least six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, the Phillies could find themselves in a position similar to this past Wednesday semi-frequently. And that is not good for a team with so many bullpen questions.
On Wednesday, the Phils did not use closer Hector Neris in the second game of a doubleheader against the Yankees because he warmed up and threw one pitch to finish Game 1. Instead, the Phils went with Tommy Hunter in the last inning of a tie game at home — a spot that ordinarily goes to a closer — and he put four men on, allowing two runs without recording an out in a 3-1 Phillies loss.
What happens the next time Neris is used in Game 1 and things are late and close in Game 2? What happens if the Phillies are forced to also use their few other somewhat reliable relievers in the first game like Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez?
"We have to get our bullpen 2.0, which means we know that our veteran guys Neris, Morgan, Hunter and Alvarez, we know they have a track record," first-year Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday. "It's finding out what these other guys can do because they will have to assist and take the load off of those guys when it comes to finish a game, the second game of a doubleheader where you have a chance to sweep but you've used your high-leverage guys in the first game.
"We don't want to get to that point where we have to throw our best guys two games and then have to do it again in two or three days. It's important that we have a second layer of bullpen guys that are established and trustworthy in those late-game situations. And that's what we're finding out here in the early part of this 60-game season."
Middle relief is an issue for most teams, but perhaps most importantly, the Phillies lack true right-handed setup options in front of Neris. They do not have a right-hander in the 'pen with a big, consistently plus fastball. Theoretically, it could be Nick Pivetta, but he so frequently misses over the middle of the plate.
When you know you have the eighth inning locked down, close games become less stressful. When you don't have one, every night is a cross-your-fingers adventure.
The Phils' bullpen held up again on Saturday night, allowing just one baserunner over three scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over the Braves. Over the last two games, the maligned unit has allowed just two runs over eight innings.
"We're not a power bullpen per se, compared to a lot of other clubs," Price said. "But what we were excited about coming out of spring training was we had a true sinkerballer in Reggie McClain. We had a guy with a depth changeup like Deolis Guerra. Each one of these guys had a skill set that really seemed to work well. And then of course Ramon Rosso has one of the best arms in our bullpen, power and a hard breaking pitch."
Perhaps the Phillies' bullpen would be farther ahead if it had any semblance of a routine. Their season began two weeks ago Friday night, and entering the Braves series, the Phillies had missed as many games to postponements as they had played.
"This has been a mess for us," Price understated. "This isn't about excuses, it's about the reality. We went a stretch there where we weren't able to play a game. We had one scrimmage in that week. We got on the field one time in five days during a stretch and then we come out of it and go to Yankee Stadium right away.
"Our starters are losing the ability to get stretched out and that puts a bigger onus on the bullpen. There's zero continuity. We haven't gotten to a stretch in the season where we've been able to play three, four, five, six, seven days in a row. Where guys can get regular work and start to understand if there is a role definition. Right now, we've got a kid like Rosso who hasn't pitched since opening day on July 24.
"Setting expectations for young people that aren't terribly experienced at this level is unrealistic in these first couple weeks. But after these first couple weeks, we'll have a better idea of what to work with."