Philadelphia's sports attention is focused primarily on the Stanley Cup run of the Philadelphia Flyers, with the Phillies lack of offense and fall from first place in the NL East running a close second. Actually, the Phillies should be thankful that the Flyers are captivating the Philadelphia faithful, because otherwise, the Phillies would be getting scoured on local sports talk radio and in the newspapers and blogs around the City of Brotherly Love.
What's gone unnoticed has been the work that the Phillies formerly beleaguered bullpen has turned in during the team's recent fall from grace. While the Phillies are just 2-9 over their last 11 games and hitting at a horrid .197 pace over those games, the bullpen has turned in strong performances and a combined ERA of 3.30 in 30 innings of work. And when you consider that all of those innings have come without the presence of Ryan Madson, who is on the DL with a broken big toe, and only one of those innings has come from Brad Lidge, who has just returned after his second trip to the DL this season, the work of the bullpen has been especially impressive.
The Phillies signing of Danys Baez and Jose Contreras during the winter was seen as somewhat of a blunder at the time. Surely, these two aging stalwarts couldn't contribute much to the Phillies bullpen which was in desperate need of a rebuilding, but both have pitched well for the Phillies this season in somewhat of a return to form for both. Contreras, who has successfully made the conversion from being a starter, even took over the role of closer with both Lidge and Madson on the DL and did a nice job for the club back in the days when they actually needed a closer. Contreras converted all three of his save opportunities and has a 1.08 ERA in 19 games this season as a reliever. Baez has pitched in 24 games and while his season stats aren't as good as Contreras - 2-1, 3.91 ERA - he currently has a string of ten innings without allowing a run.
David Herndon, a rule five addition from the Los Angeles Angels, has struggled at times throughout the season, but has quietly become a dependable arm out of the bullpen for manager Charlie Manuel. Over his last ten appearances, Herndon has an ERA of just 1.59 and he's recorded three groundball outs for every flyball out, thanks to his rather wicked sinker which comes in very handy at Citizens Bank Park. That sinker is exactly the reason why the Phillies selected Herndon from the Angels and after struggling to adjust to major league hitters early on - Herndon had an ERA just over seven back in late April - the 24 year-old right-hander is showing his value now and shouldn't have any trouble sticking with the Phillies for the remainder of the season.
Another young pitcher, Antonio Bastardo (0-0, 4.35) has been contributing against left-handers, filling the formerly open hole for a second left-hander in the Phillies bullpen. Left-handed hitters are batting just .111 against Bastardo, who had been bouncing back-and-forth between Philadelphia and Triple-A Lehigh Valley earlier in the season, and he's been tough to hit with runners on base (.125) and even tougher with runners in scoring position (.100). Bastardo has also been taking some shots for the team lately as Charlie Manuel had to increase his role because of a short start by Cole Hamels in a rain delayed game in Atlanta and Bastardo went from being a left-handed specialist to giving the Phillies 1 1/3 innings of work, allowing one run in the stint. A sure sign that the Phillies are gaining more confidence in the 24 year-old came to light when Lidge was recently activated from the DL, signaling what would have normally been another trip to Lehigh Valley for Bastardo; instead, the Phillies designated veteran Nelson Figueroa for assignment and kept Bastardo on the roster.
Bastardo aids J.C. Romero, who battled an injury early in the season, but is shaping into form lately as the primary left-hander out of the pen. Romero has gone seven outings - covering 5 1/3 innings - without allowing a run and helped out by converting two save opportunities that he was given, which is a very unfamiliar role for the veteran lefty. Romero played a huge role on the 2008 team that captured the World Series, but slid off his game slightly last season. A return to 2008 form would be a welcome thing for the Phillies bullpen.
While Chad Durbin has had some recent struggles, generally, he's been dependable and consistent throughout the season, just as he's been in the past for the Phillies. Durbin has been asked to fill various roles, pitching in long relief, middle relief and also coming through in key situations with runners on base.
There's no doubt that the Phillies slide has been the result of bad hitting, but it has certainly overshadowed the success that the bullpen has had of late. With a pretty hefty workload for the relievers, both the young pitchers and the veterans have come through for the Phillies even though they've often been pitching out of their usual roles. Over the same period of time, the starters have been literally perfect once - thanks to Roy Halladay - and have also been battered at other times. If not for the strength of the Phillies bullpen, which was thought to be a weak-link coming into the season, things could be much worse for the Phillies than they are right now. And with a maximum of four games left in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Phillies are about to take center stage in Philadelphia.