If you want to be a premier baseball team in the 21st century, it sure helps to have a dominant bullpen. The Phillies, of course, are not there yet, and they have not been for quite some time.
The last time they ranked among the top 10 bullpens in baseball was 2011 when Ryan Madson was the closer. You probably also remember that was the last time they sniffed the postseason. The last time they were truly elite in the relief department was the magical 2008 season when closer Brad Lidge converted all 48 of his save opportunities, the team bullpen ERA was the second lowest in baseball, and the parade route went right down Broad Street.
In the following six seasons, the Phillies’ bullpen ERA has ranked among the bottom half in baseball every year, reaching its nadir at 5.05 last season.
The Phillies’ current bullpen does at least appear to be trending in the right direction even though it took a step in the wrong one during Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Oakland A’s at Citizens Bank Park.
“Hanging breaking ball, first pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said in describing the sixth-inning moment when former West Chester University star Joey Wendle launched a grand slam into the right-field seats that turned a one-run Oakland deficit into a three-run lead.
Reliever Edubray Ramos threw the hanging curveball. He also issued the two-out walk to light-hitting Mark Canha just before the home run.
“If I don’t walk the guy, I’m out of the inning without allowing a run,” Ramos said through the team interpreter. “This season has been tough. I know I’ve had my ups and downs.”
A long list of Phillies relievers, including Ramos, had been on the upswing in the second half of the season. Even with the two runs charged to Ramos on Sunday, the bullpen still has a 2.17 ERA in its last 20 games and is ranked 15th out of 30 teams for the season, with a 4.28 ERA.
Ramos, 24, pitched well enough as a rookie last season to earn a prominent spot in the bullpen at the start of this season. But he ended up being optioned to triple-A Lehigh Valley near the end of June with a 0-7 record and a 5.52 ERA in 35 appearances. Since his return in early August, he has a 3.48 ERA in 18 appearances and has struck out 31 batters with just six walks in 20 2/3 innings.
“Hot and cold,” Mackanin said when asked to describe Ramos’ season. “He has the stuff to be successful, but once again I’m a broken record: It’s all about commanding your stuff. You have to keep the ball out of the middle of the plate. I think about Luis Garcia and how he had the same issue for a couple of years. He had the stuff, but he couldn’t put it together and didn’t execute his pitches as well as he has been this year.”
Garcia’s career-low 2.51 ERA is a reason for optimism. Closer Hector Neris certainly drives the manager crazy sometimes and he has not been as good or consistent as he was a year ago. He has, however, converted 15 straight save opportunities since blowing his last one on June 21, and he has 2.72 ERA in 35 games since that date.
Two lefties – Adam Morgan and Hoby Milner – qualify as the most pleasant surprises in this year’s bullpen. After starter Henderson Alvarez allowed the first two runners to reach in the sixth inning Sunday, Mackanin called on Milner to face Matt Olson, the A’s premier power hitter. Milner responded with a strikeout, lowering his ERA to 1.71 in 31 appearances.
Morgan, meanwhile, pitched a perfect eighth inning, lowering his ERA to 3.96 overall and 2.04 in his last 24 appearances. The onetime starter now appears comfortable in his role as a reliever.
“I think it took some time to get the routine down,” the 27-year-old lefty said. “I had to figure out how many pitches it takes to warm up, what to do before a game, what to do after a game, when to take a day off. I feel like I’ve got that part down. Once I started to pitch consistently, I felt like I started to get a better routine and I know myself better now.”
Like his manager, Morgan thinks the Phillies’ relief corps is on the verge of something really good.
“I think our spirits are up,” he said.
That tends to happen when the ERAs start to go down.