LOS ANGELES — Roy Halladay was an interested observer when Antonio Bastardo jogged from right field to the mound at Dodger Stadium in the seventh inning. Two of his runners were standing on bases in a three-run game with the Dodgers' No. 3 hitter, Andre Ethier, stepping to the plate.
Bastardo fell behind 3-0 to Ethier. Given a green light, Ethier hacked at a 94 m.p.h. inside fastball only to foul it off. The next fastball, down and away, bounced toward Jimmy Rollins at short. He started a 6-4-3 double play and the bearded Bastardo walked into the visiting dugout with chin held high.
"Relief," Halladay said. "I obviously wished it was me. But it's a great feeling."
And no, the bullpen was not at its best in a 5-3 Phillies win Monday. But perhaps it took a night like this to truly appreciate the work of the relievers this season.
Who has a better bullpen right now?
Or maybe not.
"It doesn't even take nights like tonight," Halladay said. "I've been on teams where it's never guaranteed, even if you get through eight innings. Our bullpen has gotten credit, but in a lot of ways they are unsung heroes. They've closed games down. You really feel like you get through six or seven innings and you have a chance to win the game. Even on nights like tonight when it's not the best you've seen them, they find ways to get it done."
That could be the understatement of the year. Consider this: The Phillies have three blown saves this season through 115 games. Only one of those blown saves has come in the eighth inning or later. Two of the blown saves were committed by pitchers no longer on the active roster (Danys Baez and Andrew Carpenter).
The Phillies have more closers (four) than blown saves (three).
Monday teetered on the edge of destruction. Bastardo's two outs on one pitch were huge. But Mike Stutes was rattled and Brad Lidge nearly tanked it all. But once Juan Rivera smashed into Chase Utley, the path toward a Phillies win was restored.
It was far from easy, as the beginning suggested, but the Phillies captured the first game of this series. Normally, it happens like so: Jump out to an early lead. Survive a minor bout of adversity in the middle innings. Ride the day's starter deep into the night.
That formula has yielded most of the 75 wins in 115 games, a clip rarely equaled in Philadelphia history. Games in September could carry the tag "meaningless" sooner rather than later. The postseason is not a goal; it's practically guaranteed.
It was murky in the eighth when Stutes allowed the first two runners to reach base and both eventually scored. The break came with Lidge on the mound. With runners on first and second, Dee Gordon tapped a grounder to second. Utley firmly planted his ground only to be bulldozed by Juan Rivera. Umpires stopped play, ruled Rivera out, and returned the runners to first and second.
That was important because the next pitch Lidge threw bounced to the backstop. Instead of the tying run crossing home, it moved only to third base. Eugenio Velez was stranded there because Tony Gwynn Jr. tried to tie the game on a bunt. Lidge pounced off the mound, snagged the ball and flipped it from his glove to Ryan Howard's for the third out. Utley, a connoisseur of glove flips, slapped Lidge on the behind as they ran to the dugout; the great escape complete.
Ryan Madson allowed a leadoff single in the ninth, but once he gained control of his devastating change-up, the inning was a breeze.
The whole night was not once Halladay departed. But it was a test the bullpen has rarely had to endure, and one that could pay off come October.
"They've been tremendous," Charlie Manuel said of his relievers. "I praise those guys all the time. That might have been one of the toughest ones tonight. We were digging a little hole for ourselves. But we wiggled out of it."
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