The Phillies had a chance to add another signature, dramatic win to their early-season resume Monday night when they hosted the Braves. Instead, the biggest negative of the season to this point continued to hang over Philadelphia’s head as their bullpen cost them a chance at a signature victory. Not even 10% into the regular season, the Phillies seem like a team with every piece necessary to at least contend except dependable relief pitching, which will ultimately prevent them from making any sort of noise by way of a postseason run.
What started off as somewhat of a pitcher’s duel between starters Roberto Hernandez and Ervin Santana turned into a frenzied finish reminiscent of 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, unlike the teams of Phillies past, it would be Atlanta putting the punctuation mark on the first tilt between two longtime division rivals.
Ryan Howard would open the scoring in the second inning with a mammoth home run to center field. It would be Howard’s third of the season and second in as many games to give Hernandez a 1-0 lead. The Phillies starter would cruise along for the most part throughout the evening, wriggling out of trouble on a few occasions. It would not be until the 6th inning that the Braves started to tilt things in their favor. After walking the lead-off man and punching out Justin Upton, Hernandez would surrender a home run to Braves catcher Evan Gattis. Hernandez would labor through the rest of the frame but ultimately leave the contest with the Phillies trailing 2-1.
B.J. Rosenberg would pitch in the seventh inning and start one of the most torturous, calamitous nights one could have imagined for a bullpen that looks to have the pieces to be one of the worst in the league. Rosenberg would face just three batters, record no outs, and surrender solo home runs to all three Atlanta hitters. Gattis would hit his second, followed by Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons going yard to put the Braves up 5-1 after the top half of the 8th. What followed from the Phillies should have been the type of memorable inning that a playoff team looks back on as a defining moment.
After loading the bases against Braves reliever Luis Avilan, the Phillies drew within two by the way of a Marlon Byrd RBI single. Domonic Brown, who had been dealing with a mini-slump of sorts, stepped up and delivered a memorable late-inning blow. Brown would crush a three-run home run off of Avilan to miraculously give the Phillies a 6-5 lead heading into the top of the 9th inning. With Jonathan Papelbon apparently unable to pitch, Ryne Sandberg instead opted for Jake Diekman in a role yet to be seen by the lanky lefty.
One could tell from the start that Diekman was shaky at best. He would walk the anemic B.J. Upton to lead off the inning, always a no-no when it comes to late-game situations. An uncharacteristic defensive miscue by Chase Utley on a ball hit by Freddie Freeman would give Atlanta runners on first and second with nobody out. Diekman would complete his Upton walk sandwich by giving Justin a free pass to load the bases. After striking out Gattis, Diekman was suddenly in a position where a ground ball could have gotten the Phillies out with a win. Instead, he served up a meatball to Dan Uggla who deposited over the left-field fence and sucked what little wind there was in Citizen’s Bank Park right out. The grand slam would give Atlanta a comfortable 9-6 lead and the Phillies would bow out without much resistance in the bottom of the 9th. Instead of a comeback win over arguably the best bullpen in the game, the worst bullpen in the game squandered one for Philadelphia as they fell back to a game under .500.
One can manage the game all they want and pull all the right strings. Fact of the matter is, if a team does not have dependable options to navigate the money innings in baseball, there is little reason to show up to the ballpark. The Phillies’ success this season is dependent on the performance of a core group of players who need to compile as many wins as possible to account for the possibility of injuries and rest. Those players did what was necessary of them Monday night, only to have the scrap-heap that is their relief corps blow their efforts in inexcusable fashion. It is only one game, but it is a game the Phillies could have and should have had. Instead of bookmarking this game as a signature win, the Phillies could end up looking back at this one in disgust knowing what got away from them.
Cliff Lee takes the mound against David Hale Tuesday with a chance to even up the four-game set and rinse the stink of this one from the clubhouse. If there was ever a game where the Phillies needed Lee’s A-plus stuff, one would have to circle game number 14 as such a contest. A strong performance against a sizzling Braves lineup would be just the type of bounceback this team needs after a demoralizing defeat like Monday’s. If Lee turns in another mediocre showing, something we have already seen on multiple occasions this season, confidence will only continue to slip.
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