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Nature vs. Bullpen
Posted By Christopher Rowe On Aug 22 2011 @ 11:56 am In Philadelphia Phillies | 3 Comments
Baseball is science. Physics, Trigonometry and even the age-old law of averages rule the game. Laws govern the principle that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Science indicates that the amount of pressure, force, torque or energy applied to a baseball will determine its speed and trajectory with relatively defined results (unless throwing knuckleball). A baserunner in motion tends to stay in motion and will steal a base or score much more easily that one who has to stop every 90 feet – unless his third base coach throws up the stop sign. Chaos theory also applies to the science of baseball because events unfold in ways that have never before been seen in 135 years of playing the game. The Human Element affects the game as will weather patterns, superstition, fan interference and of course sheer luck but Baseball is science. Bullpens on the other hand are an art form.
Brad Lidge blew a save opportunity Sunday surrendering the game to the Washington Nationals when he plunked a batter. Ryan Madson blew a 4-2 save opportunity on Friday when he allowed the Nationals a few extra outs and runs – just enough to load the bases for Ryan Zimmerman and his walk-off grand slam. Madson couldn’t have enraged Phillies fans more vehemently if he had poured gasoline on the stadium and lit a match to cash in on the insurance money. Actually since there were more Phillies fans in attendance than Nationals fans that would have been problematic in many ways.
On this day, after hours of rain delays and Herculean efforts by the grounds crew to get the field back to playable state, a baseball game broke out. Roy Halladay sat through the hour-plus rain delay only to be told that his day was finished after 5 innings. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee pow-wowed to determine the best course of action when the storm clouds subsided. Playing with a short deck, some shuffling was required. Ryan Madson and Kyle Kendrick were not available due to overuse and Michael Stutes was tapped out too. The best hope was that they could squeeze an inning out of David Herndon if needed to bridge the gap to the remaining short relievers. Antonio Bastardo found himself protecting a one-run lead late. The lefty blew away Washington catcher Jesus Flores and pinch-hitter Brian Bixler and had shortstop Ian Desmond on the ropes with a 1-2 count. Then Bastardo left a slider up in the zone and watched Desmond send it into the leftfield seats, tying the score. Bastardo has been so good this season that he was shocked to give up the homer when he was one pitch away from nailing down the win.
“Mother Nature has not been kind to us this week. Not a hell of a lot we can do about Mother Nature,” Charlie Manuel said with a shrug. Rain disrupted the rotation for the third time in 4 days. When that happens, the bullpen inevitably becomes discombobulated.
So it was Brad Lidge pitching in a tie game in the bottom of the 10th inning. He proceeded to load the bases and then hit Johnny Gomes with a pitch to force in the winning run. Lidge stood for a moment on the mound as if he couldn’t quite believe what happened. Mostly that was because he couldn’t believe what had just happened – or more accurately he didn’t want to believe what had just happened. Lights out indeed.
“[It was a] slider that backed up. That’s very frustrating,” he said. “I mean, normally that’s a pitch for me that when I release it I know what it’s going to do. I throw that pitch a lot. And that one didn’t go where I thought it was going to go.” Disbelief was a common theme on the afternoon. Whether the culprit is overuse due to the rain delays or rotation shuffling due to injuries and scheduling, this is all part of the game.
The odd thing about bullpens, is that even the best ones tend to be a work in progress. Managers and pitching coaches have a plan. Then some guys get overworked or get hurt and roles get mixed up. Other guys couldn’t get into the game if they bought a ticket. What comes out eventually is that whoever comes out of the pen breathing fire to consistently get batters out is called the closer. Everybody else lines up behind him and establishes their roles. Then all hell breaks loose when bad things start to happen.
Just look at how much has changed since the Phillies broke camp at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater for the first time this spring. Ryan Madson is the closer now. Back then the brass was uncertain enough about Madson’s ability to handle the role that they first gave it to Jose Contreras to open the season. Former 2008 superhero Brad Lidge would have to start the season on the disabled list and so Contreras would leapfrog over Madson to become the closer. Antonio Bastardo was hardly a lock to make the team out of Spring Training while Danys Baez, David Herndon, Kyle Kendrick and the re-signed JC Romero battled for the remaining bullpen spots behind the Four Aces (five if you count Joe Blanton, which I don’t). Vance Worley was milling around camp seeking autographs in addition while hoping the manager and pitching coach might learn his name for the 2012 rotation.
Since Spring Training, Joe Blanton has spent more time on the DL than at Old Country Buffet (wait let me check… no that’s right) but still claims he will return (from the DL). Kyle Kendrick has shuttled back and forth from long reliever to spot starter and Vance Worley has come on to be an effective major league starter this season while subbing for Roy Oswalt. Antonio Bastardo might arguably be among the most dominant lefty relievers in baseball (Johnny Venters may take umbrage with that and rightfully so). Michael Stutes wasn’t called up until the end of April. David Herndon spent time in the minors and returned a much more effective pitcher. Lidge didn’t come back until after the All-Star break. Michael Schwimer made his major league debut yesterday and Scott Mathieson has spent more time driving back and forth from Lehigh to Center City than in the Phillies bullpen. Veterans Danys Baez and J.C. Romero, in the meantime, have been released.
For the time being, perhaps Lidge’s veteran perspective seems to be the best approach. “You go back and you make adjustments,” he said. “And you also realize that you don’t need to adjust too much, because we have been throwing the ball well. We’ve been doing a really good job. When something like this happens, the last thing you want to do is think you have to change everything.”
Despite all the tumult, or maybe because of it, the Phillies’ bullpen has been a source of strength most of the season. Right now, it is a concern but no one is hitting the panic button. Six weeks left in the regular season with a significant lead and the best record in baseball. This is worth keeping an eye on and in reality, there is little to no hope of importing additional talent. Any self-respecting team would block Phillies attempts at waiver wire claims or trade proposals so the cast of characters will not and should not be replaced. It’s possible that this could all be an ominous foreshadowing, as dark and threatening as the storm clouds that caused delays all weekend. It may also be an aberration which is part of the ebb and flow of a grueling 162 game season.
Thankfully it is way too early to start hiding sharp objects or obsessing about what all this portends for October (which many Philadelphia fans have a propensity of doing). There’s no need to perform Duck and Cover drills or head for the bomb shelter just yet. If necessary, there will be plenty of time for that later…
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