ATLANTA – Gabe Kapler prides himself on being perpetually prepared. In fact, he stood inside the visiting dugout Saturday afternoon and said he spent several hours meeting with his coaching staff about the team’s bullpen situation, which was an issue three games into the season not only because the Phillies manager needed eight relievers to get his first win Friday night, but also because he did not stick with his best starter, Aaron Nola, long enough in the team’s season-opening loss Thursday.
“We’re in good shape,” Kapler promised before his team endured a 15-2 thumping from the Atlanta Braves in the series finale at SunTrust Park. “We have coverage. We met for several hours this afternoon and we’ve got a game plan that we feel confident and comfortable with.”
By the end of the ultra-ugly evening, the plan included using extra man Pedro Florimon to pitch in the eighth inning because the rest of the relievers had been overused. Kapler defended that move and said you’ll see it again because using position players as pitchers is part of the master plan to keep his relievers fresh.
“We started preparing Pedro for situations like that in spring training, so he was getting off mounds in Clearwater,” Kapler said. “It’s not the last time we’re going to use position players to pitch, mostly because we want to preserve the health and well being and strength of our bullpen.”
That might be innovative, but Kapler had no good reason for the third-inning miscommunication that forced the manager to bring in reliever Hoby Milner before he had warmed up in the bullpen.
Stuff happens, of course, but the stuff that happened Saturday should not have been all that unexpected. History showed that Vince Velasquez is not known for economizing his pitches and, even though Kapler talked up the hard-throwing righthander throughout spring training, that disturbing trend continued in the Grapefruit League games.
In fairness, Velasquez was the victim of some bad bounces and breaks, but he was also just bad at other points and after 2 2/3 innings his pitch count was at 69 – one more than Nola had thrown in that now infamous opening-day outing – and the Braves had a 6-2 lead. In a scene that became all too familiar during the first series of the Phillies’ season, Kapler emerged from the visiting dugout and went to the mound because he wanted the lefty Milner to face Freddie Freeman just as he had done in the first two games.
This time, however, Kapler did not immediately make the call to the bullpen because Milner was not ready to come in. The Phillies and their rookie manager were as unprepared as a freshman dressed in blue jeans for gym class.
Milner, in fact, had not yet thrown a warmup pitch, although Kapler said he had after the game. He was still in the process of getting loose. Kapler admitted Friday that he would have regrets at some point this season – “I am human,” he said – especially if he thought he was unprepared for a certain situation. He took responsibility for the Milner gaffe without revealing exactly what happened.
“Miscommunication between the dugout and the bullpen and any time we have a miscommunication it is my full responsibility,” Kapler said. “It’s a pretty good indication that I need to do a better job and I will. One of the things I pride myself on is being an excellent communicator … and I will continue to strive for excellence in that regard. Miscommunications are just simply unacceptable.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker and Freeman clearly noticed what was happening and both were steaming mad. Freeman yelled from the on-deck circle that Kapler was stalling. Snitker came out of the home dugout screaming at umpire crew chief Jerry Layne and was immediately ejected, marking the second time in three games the Braves manager was tossed.
A replay on the Braves’ television broadcast showed that it took 80 seconds for Milner to get to the mound after Kapler came in to make the pitching change. Layne did inform Milner that he would be limited to just five warmup tosses, but that obviously did not satisfy Snitker, who continued to argue his point longer after his ejection.
Layne described the situation as “messed up” and said that it would be reported to Major League Baseball, but he gave Milner five warmup throws because he did not want to jeopardize the pitcher’s health.
“Whoever is at fault for not doing their job on the Phillies’ side should have to answer to Major League Baseball,” Layne said.
The Phillies’ bullpen situation has been a soap opera of sorts here at the start of the season. Just as they were getting ready to leave Clearwater, they lost their most expensive reliever – Tommy Hunter – to a hamstring injury that occurred while he was running on a treadmill. And then Pat Neshek went down with a shoulder strain that was revealed after Kapler’s opening-day decision to take out Nola when he was working on a shutout in the sixth inning.
And now Florimon has thrown one more inning than the two relievers the Phillies spent $34 million on this offseaon.
You would think that a depleted bullpen would make the manager less inclined to go to his bullpen in a hurry, but that was obviously not the case.
Kapler can argue – and, in fact, did – that he was making bullpen decisions he felt were best to help the Phillies win the game on Thursday and Friday. He said he understood that he could not clean out the bullpen on a daily basis in an effort to win games, but the Phillies are off Sunday and the manager, after hours of meetings, had a plan.
“I’m well aware that we can’t use everybody every night,” Kapler said. “But I can also tell you that we’ll be creative and we’ll be flexible and we’ll find ways to put together a bullpen that’s going to be protective.”
If using position players to pitch can be considered creative, protective and flexible, then Gabe Kapler was on Saturday night. But he still had an umpire ready to report his team to the league office for being unprepared and a 13-run loss to answer for and those sorts of things always fall on the lap of the manager.