When Gabe Kapler is in the room, the elephant sitting next to him is almost always the Phillies’ bullpen. It has become the beast that will not go away, the subject of almost every postgame interview with the manager.
Even when the Phillies’ cast of relievers gets the job done, as it did during Wednesday afternoon’s 4-3 win — also producing a series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals — the method in which the rookie manager gets to the final out is fascinating theater.
And so it was again on this lovely June day. Let’s start at the finish. After pinch-hitter Jedd Gyorko doubled off Victor Arano with one out in the ninth, Kapler called on Adam Morgan to face Matt Carpenter. The lefthanded-hitting third baseman homered in the ninth inning Tuesday night off Seranthony Dominguez to give St. Louis a one-run victory, but there would be no rematch.
Dominguez has been the bullpen workhorse since joining the team on May 7, and Kapler decided the rookie righthander needed two days of rest. He will get a second one Thursday, because the Phillies are off.
That left Morgan against Carpenter, and the crowd of 26,120 made it clear that it did not like the Phillies’ end of the matchup. Morgan was booed as he trotted in from center field. He insisted he did not hear the sour greeting.
“Nah, I was just trying to focus on Carpenter,” he said.
Morgan threw the Cardinals’ hitter five pitches — all sliders — and got the second out of the inning when third baseman Maikel Franco made a terrific catch in foul territory.
“Just sticking with my strength – sliders down and away and not trying to do too much with it,” Morgan said.
Three pitches later, Morgan retired Tommy Pham on a grounder to shortstop Scott Kingery to end the game and earn his first career save.
“It feels good,” Morgan said. “It feels good to get a win. It feels good to go out there in any situation and succeed.”
Morgan, after posting a 1.76 ERA in 22 appearances through the month of May, has been a big part of Kapler’s bullpen problem in June, with his personal nadir being the game-ending grand slam the Cubs’ Jason Heyward hit off him at Wrigley Field.
The lefty allowed runs in four of his previous eight appearances, a stretch in which he was also charged with three blown saves.
“I’m trying not to make too much out of something,” Morgan said. “You just have to keep going after it and keep working. You can’t quit. That’s not going to help anything. You just keep trying to drive and get better.”
Morgan was willing to admit that is easier said than done.
“Oh, it’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard not thinking about what just happened. But it’s part of the game. It’s the mental part of the game, and you can’t get sucked into the trap.”
Kapler, who has insisted his bullpen is fine even as flames soar around him, was thrilled for Morgan.
“I’m so happy for him,” the manager said. “He has battled through a lot of struggles.”
The Phillies, of course, have had a lot of relievers who have struggled recently. The team’s bullpen ERA on May 26, when the Phillies spent a single day in first place, was 3.41, which ranked among the best in the majors. Since then, the bullpen ERA is 5.83, and the Phillies have slipped to 21st overall.
Kapler has used 12 relievers during that dreadful stretch, including infielder Jesmuel Valentin. Nine of them had ERAs of 4.50 or higher, and four had ERAs of 9.95 or higher.
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A new reliever was introduced to the mix Wednesday, when rookie lefthander Austin Davis made his major-league debut with the score tied, 3-3, in the top of the seventh. Davis surrendered a single but then struck out Kolten Wong before giving way to Edubray Ramos.
“It was really cool that Kap trusted me to come into that situation, and it worked out,” Davis said.
If Davis sticks around a while, he’ll discover that he can be used any time and anywhere in Kapler’s bullpen plan.
Ramos, who has quietly been this team’s most effective reliever all season, played the role of Dominguez on this afternoon, recording five outs and earning a victory that was provided by a seventh-inning home run from the white-hot Odubel Herrera. Ramos has not allowed a run in 15 straight appearances, and his overall ERA is down to a team-low 0.64.
The Phillies need more of that from Ramos. They need Morgan to be right again. They need Hector Neris to quickly regain his confidence and his nasty splitter at triple-A Lehigh Valley.
They need the bullpen to be good again, because bad ones do not typically make postseason appearances.