ARLINGTON, Texas - We'll eventually get to the state of the Phillies' bullpen, and their never-a-dull-moment closer.
First though, we have to point out that Jonathan Papelbon has a point when, in a soft voice reeking of disappointment, he said that the ninth inning of last night's 4-3 loss was "one of those innings.''
The only thing that matters, of course, is that Papelbon eventually lost it: his composure, his command and, ultimately, the game. He is paid good money not to lose any of those things. He did lose them, and the Phillies are now 1-2 because of it.
First, though, to his point.
To set the stage: With the Phillies leading 3-1 after seven strong innings from Kyle Kendrick and a redemptive eighth from Mario Hollands, the $13 million closer unraveled on the mound at Globe Life Park, retiring just one of the eight hitters he faced while allowing three runs, the last of them on a bases-loaded walk that sealed the Phillies' second straight walk-off loss.
Now, the oddities: Adrian Beltre's leadoff single came on a fastball that was sternum high. Jim Aducci's single, which cut the Phillies' lead to 3-2, came on a soft ground ball that he cued off the end of the bat to third baseman Cody Asche. And then there was the play that set fire to the powderkeg, a ground ball off the bat of Leonys Martin that, had Chase Utley been at doubleplay depth, likely would have resulted in a game-ending 4-6-3. Instead, with Utley playing a few steps in, apparently at the behest of his manager, the ball squirted through the middle for a game-tying single.
"Mac had come to the mound for a visit there and said, OK, let's get a ground ball," Papelbon said, referring to pitching coach Bob McClure. "My whole focus was getting a ground ball to get a doubleplay to get us out of the inning.
"Obviously I don't know whether that's called from the bench or called from the middle infielders, but less than two outs I'm thinking ground ball and I'm thinking let's get this doubleplay and go home. Obviously I'm not going to second-guess my teammates or my coach. Whatever they decide, I've got to run with it and go with it and do my best to do my job. But it's just one of those weird innings, man."
That's where Papelbon lost it. He threw four straight balls to Donnie Murphy to load the bases, setting up a six-pitch walk to Shin-Soo Choo that ended the game. Afterward, he sat at his locker with his legs crossed, staring into the wooden void.
"We have a lot more games to play," he said. "Obviously it's a disappointment. I thought Kendrick pitched well enough to deserve that win and unfortunately the bullpen wasn't able to preserve it for him. But it's a long season and I think that's one of the stronger points of my game, being able to bounce back and not have any memory of the previous game good or bad. We just have to continue down the path."
This next sentence goes without saying, but we're going to say it anyway, because nothing that was written above should be interpreted as excusing the Phillies' losing two out of three in a series that they easily could have swept. Again, Papelbon was the recipient of one of the richest contracts ever bestowed upon a reliever, which means he is held to a standard that exceeds all the woulda-coulda-shouldas and what-are-ya-gonna-dos that are inevitable when one allows balls to be hit into play. The economics demand that Papelbon performs at this level, and for much of the last calendar year, he has not. His fastball velocity sat 90 to 92 miles per hour last night, which is 3 to 5 miles per hour less than it sat during his dominant first season with the Phillies. He was able to get away with it last year because he was able to pitch consistently down in the zone. His strikeout rate dropped precipitously, and he blew seven saves. But he was, for the most part, effective.
Last night, he was not effective, and he will not be effective any time he is up in the zone the way he was. This was Ryne Sandberg's take, and it was an accurate one. A few years ago, he might have gotten away with some of those pitches, because the hitter's bat would not have caught up to them. Now, though, he needs to pitch. The Phillies already have enough question marks in their bullpen. They cannot afford - quite literally - another one. And after two straight losses in which their starters combined to allow two runs in 13 innings, another question is exactly what they have.