Aaron Nola turned the second game of the Philadelphia Phillies’ doubleheader against the New York Yankees on Wednesday night into a “must win.”
The Phillies starting pitcher struck out 12 in six innings. Nola gave Philadelphia a realistic chance to jump start its virus-stalled season with a doubleheader sweep of maybe baseball’s best team.
Instead, the Phillies bullpen blew the game, and Philadelphia settled for a doubleheader split that left fans feeling empty.
Philadelphia’s somewhat predictable bullpen woes have been a constant theme through its first six games.
In Wednesday’s doubleheader, the Phillies bullpen faced 16 batters, and 11 of them reached base.
For the season, Philly relievers have allowed 17 earned runs and 25 hits in 16⅔ innings
Inactivity has been one of the bullpen’s problems. COVID-19 issues sidelined Philadelphia for seven straight days after the first three games of the season.
“We had a quick (summer camp), and then you basically have a seven-day layoff,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I think it’s really hard to evaluate exactly what we’re going to do to get moving forward. We want them to turn it around. I believe they will turn it around, but they just haven’t had consistent work. It’s hard to be sharp.”
Lack of talent may be another problem. The Phillies passed on veteran relievers such as Francisco Liriano and Bud Norris in favor more inexperienced and cheaper pitchers.
Girardi has often found himself balancing a pitchers’ health against wins and losses this season.
It’s a role he takes seriously.
“We’ve seen how many injuries there have been in the game,” Girardi said. “I have a responsibility to the organization to win. I have a responsibility to the players that I don’t allow them to hurt themselves because they’re trying to be heroes. This is their career. It’s how they’re going to earn their living. Lots of times I have to protect players from themselves.”
Consider how Wednesday night unfolded.
It just wasn’t that Nola tied his career high in strikeouts that was so impressive. It was how he struck out a dozen Yankees.
Nola overmatched one of baseball’s best lineups. Nine of the 12 strikeouts were swinging. He threw 88 pitches and got 19 swing-and-misses for an outstanding swing-and-miss rate of 22%.
When Nola pitches like that, the Phillies, who are considered legitimate playoff contenders, must take advantage of the performance and win the game.
Fans were probably bewildered and upset when Girardi took Nola out after the sixth inning. But Nola hadn’t pitched since opening day July 24. If it weren’t his second start, and if the Phillies had played more in the past week, Nola probably would have stayed in the game.
Instead, reliever Tommy Hunter took the mound in the top of the seventh with the score at 1-1. He faced five batters, hitting one with a pitch and giving up four hits and two runs. The Phillies lost 3-1.
To understand why Hunter was chosen to pitch the seventh, all one had to do was remember the first game of the doubleheader.
Phillies starter Zack Wheeler allowed three runs in six innings, and the Phillies began the seventh and final inning with an 11-3 lead. Relievers Austin Davis and Trevor Kelley then combined to give up six hits and four runs. Philadelphia closer Hector Neris came into the game to get the final out and the save.
Girardi said if Neris wasn’t needed in the first game, it would have been him instead of Hunter that started the top of the seventh in game two. This is the problem with bad bullpens. Their issues compound.
“We had to use (Neris) in the first game,” Girardi said. “They were one base runner away from having the tying run at home plate. We know the power they have in their lineup. I thought I needed to get Hector in that game. It’s not what I wanted to do. But I just felt it was the right move, and when you have a chance to win a game, you’d better win the game.”
Girardi has stayed calm when discussing the bullpen woes with reporters.
“You feel really good about where Aaron Nola is at. You feel really good about where Wheeler is at,” Girardi said. “We just need to continue to build on that. If you get really good starts all the time, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
Time will tell if that statement is true with the Phillies’ bullpen.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.
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