After Brad Lidge blew his 11th save of the season Wednesday night and set-up man Ryan Madson contributed by allowing a run in the eighth, the focus once again turned to the situation at the back of the bullpen. During a post-game conversation with another writer, I floated one possible remedy: J.A. Happ. Several of you were thinking the same thing, judging by the three or four emails I received today inquiring about the possibility. And, interestingly enough, Charlie Manuel admitted tonight that the thought has crossed his mind.
Before we go any further, let me stress: Manuel said, as he has all along, that he views Happ as a starter. The lefty did not give him any reason to feel otherwise Thursday night, allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings in his first full start in more than three weeks. Happ has proven to be a valuable commodity this season, routinely pitching deep into games. Lately, he has relied more heavily on his off-speed stuff, an important and impressive evolution for a young pitcher who already possesses an incredibly deceptive fastball. Happ has the stuff to be a very good major league pitcher for a long time.
But the Phillies' only concern is the present, and the present currently holds a number of uncertainties with regards to the bullpen. Chief among those uncertainties are the team's left-handed options and their options in the ninth inning of tight games. For that reason, Manuel said yesterday he viewed Happ as a potential component of the back end of the bullpen come playoff time.
"Happ's really improved as the season's gone along," Manuel said. "I like Happ as a starter. I always have. But I also see him, with the way our pitching looks, there would be a chance that he could wind up in the back end of our bullpen if we don't get some things straightened out."
If either Romero or Eyre - or both - are unable to return from their respective injuries, Happ would be an obvious candidate to fill the void. If both of those players do return, Happ could still be an option, except in the ninth inning, where Manuel feels he has the stuff and the composure to succeed.
"I think he can do that, and I think his experience that he has his last couple of years can allow him to do that," Manuel said. "Because he can throw strikes, and he's definitely not scared. I'll talk about that. I don't know exactly how we set up. If we get Romero back, I like Happ as a starter, I always have."
Happ showed last night that he can succeed against the toughest hitters the majors have to offer, from either side of the plate. Ryan Braun, the right-handed slugger who is hitting .312 with 29 home runs, went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against him. MVP Candidate Prince Fielder went 1-for-3 with a strikeout and a double.
Is Happ a likely candidate to close? No. But if Romero and Eyre return, and Pedro Martinez pitches well in his last two starts, who knows?