WASHINGTON - The thing about bullpens, see, is that even the best ones tend to be a work in progress. Managers and pitching coaches have a plan. Then some guys get overworked. Other guys couldn't get into the game if they bought a ticket.
Throw in some rain and pretty soon that neat, little chart looks a lot like the lineup card at the end of a 16-inning game, all tattered and dog-eared and messy with names written in here and crossed out there.
Just look at how much has changed since the Phillies arrived at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater for the first time this spring. Ryan Madson is the closer now. Back then the brass was uncertain enough about his ability to handle the role that they first gave it to Jose Contreras when it became clear that Brad Lidge would have to start the season on the disabled list. Antonio Bastardo was hardly a lock to make the team. He arguably has been the most dominant lefty reliever in baseball. Michael Stutes wasn't called up until the end of April. Lidge didn't come back until after the All-Star break. Michael Schwimer made his major league debut yesterday.
Veterans Danys Baez and J.C. Romero, in the meantime, have been released.
Despite all the churn, or maybe because of it, the Phillies' 'pen has been a strength most of the season.
Still, given the fickle nature of the position, the fact that the Washington Nationals came out of the series that ended on their sod yesterday with a pair of walkoff wins is sure to furrow some brows back in Philly. Especially the getaway, 5-4 gutshot in which back-to-back-to-back relievers made just enough mistakes to let an eminently winnable game slip away.
This is worth keeping an eye on. It's possible that this could all be an ominous foreshadowing, as dark and threatening as the storm clouds that caused a delay of an hour and 11 minutes in the top of the sixth and forced starter Roy Halladay out of the game after just five innings. But it's way early to start hiding sharp objects and obsessing about what all this portends for October. There's no need to panic now. If necessary, there will be plenty of time for that later.
Rain disrupted the rotation for the third time in 4 days. When that happens, the bullpen inevitably becomes discombobulated.
"Mother Nature. Not a hell of a lot we can do about Mother Nature," Charlie Manuel said with a shrug.
Still, that meant that the manager was playing with a short deck. Madson and Kyle Kendrick were not available. He and pitching coach Rich Dubee hoped they could squeeze an inning out of David Herndon if needed.
So, it was Lidge pitching in a tie game in the bottom of the 10th. He loaded the bases, hit Johnny Gomes with a pitch to force in the winning run and stood for a moment on the mound as if he couldn't quite believe what happened.
"[It was a] slider that backed up. That's very frustrating," he said. "I mean, normally that's a pitch for me that when I release it I know what it's going to do. I throw that pitch a lot. And that one didn't go where I thought it was going to go."
Disbelief was pretty much the theme of the afternoon for the relievers. Not to paint a smiley face on an ugly loss, but there were some encouraging signs as well.
Bastardo, protecting a one-run lead, blew away catcher Jesus Flores and pinch-hitter Brian Bixler and had shortstop Ian Desmond buried, 1-2. Then he left a slider up and Desmond hit it into the leftfield seats, tying the score.
Bastardo has been so good this season that he was shocked to give up the homer when he was one pitch away from nailing down the win. "A little bit," he admitted.
Schwimer, too, had some positives to consider although he was in no mood to focus on them after giving up a game-tying homer to Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa on the second major league pitch he ever threw.
Baseball people place a premium on players who don't get rattled when things go wrong; Schwimer retired the next eight batters he faced, striking out four of them, even though he wasn't in a mood for consolation afterward.
"I was like, 'It doesn't get much better than this.' And after two pitches I was like, 'It doesn't get much worse than this,' " he said when asked what went through his mind as he was warming up. "I threw two pitches and he just baptized me."
Again, this might develop into a cause for alarm. For now, though, Lidge's veteran perspective seems to be the best approach. "You go back and you make adjustments," he said. "And you also realize that you don't need to adjust too much, because we have been throwing the ball well. We've been doing a really good job. And when something like this happens, the last thing you want to do is think you have to change a whole lot."