MILWAUKEE - There was thought, Ryne Sandberg said, to granting Roberto Hernandez a shot at his first complete game in almost a year. The sinkerballer limited Milwaukee to one run in eight innings Wednesday on 84 pitches. He attacked an aggressive lineup that has occupied first place for 92 straight days only to stumble this week.
But the Phillies manager wanted his $50 million closer, Jonathan Papelbon, to record his 22d save. Papelbon sealed a 4-1 win over the Brewers with nine pitches for his third save in three nights. Then, moments after the brisk 2-hour, 15-minute game, Papelbon indicated his desire to pitch for a contender.
"Some guys want to stay on a losing team? That's mind-boggling to me," Papelbon said. "I think that's a no-brainer."
When asked if his limited no-trade clause would be a blockade, Papelbon shook his head. He said he had not yet expressed that to the front office. Papelbon could not say whether he would still be with the Phillies after the trade deadline because he does not "have that crystal eight-ball."
The Phillies have attempted to trade Papelbon for more than a year. He is an expensive hood ornament for a team staring at a third straight October without postseason baseball. Highly paid closers are anachronistic in this game, although teams such as San Francisco, Detroit, and Baltimore have uncertain ninth-inning situations. The Phillies will have to assume a portion of the $19 million owed to Papelbon.
Does he hope a team emerges to rescue him from the losing?
"Yes and no," Papelbon said. "You know, I came here for a reason . . . and I say that because I'm with a group of guys in the bullpen that can do very special things in the future. I've been waiting for that, you know what I mean? It's fun to be a part of that, it really is. We are there finally with our bullpen. So that aspect of it would kind of [stink] to leave. But at the same time, winning is the cure-all of cure-alls."
Papelbon has a 1.24 ERA. He has converted 22 of his 24 save opportunities. He is pitching better than he ever has in a Phillies uniform, and is one of the better relievers in baseball despite diminished fastball velocity.
His strikeout rate has dipped, but Papelbon has permitted a minuscule 22 hits in 361/3 innings. Batters are hitting .175 against him. He again cited a hip injury that nagged him for all of last season as detrimental to proper mechanics.
This season is different.
"I think I'm at a point in my career where I've learned how to be a pitcher more than at any point in my career, I'll say that," Papelbon said.
The Phillies won Wednesday because of Hernandez, who threw his best start of the season. He allowed three hits in eight innings.
It is a small consolation at this juncture, when three straight wins against a slumping Brewers team with the best record in the National League represent a detour from the dismantling that could soon arrive for these Phillies. They are a mere 11 games under .500 now.
Hernandez was never tested by a Brewers lineup that did not include Ryan Braun or Jonathan Lucroy. The lone Milwaukee run scored in the second inning because Ben Revere's arm does not threaten the opposition. Lyle Overbay cracked a broken-bat single up the middle. Aramis Ramirez, standing near second, froze. The 36-year-old third baseman is one of the game's slower runners. Even with a delayed start, Milwaukee third-base coach Ed Sedar waved Ramirez home.
Revere's throw two-hopped to catcher Cameron Rupp, who had to scurry up the third-base line to fetch it.
Hernandez carried the Phillies to the ninth, when Papelbon entered. The closer is ready to leave if a contender comes knocking.
"Yeah," Papelbon said. He laughed.