The mythical beast in its left-handed aspect, with signature badonkadonk and companion Chooch. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
It’s pretty rare that I take issue with Charlie Manuel. The guy’s got his critics, but to me it’s clear he’s the greatest manager in Phillies history, and if he wins two more championships—admittedly a huge "if"—I wouldn’t be shocked to see him one day follow his former boss Pat Gillick into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Heady stuff for a guy whose hiring seven years ago was greeted with derision, and was perceived to be a dead manager walking pretty much right up to the moment when the Phils claimed the 2007 NL East title.
If there’s one criticism of Manuel I buy into, though, it’s that he sometimes sticks with "his guys" too long. This stems in part from loyalty—a generally admirable trait that helps explain why hitters like Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez have shook off terrible starts to make big contributions down the stretch in a few different seasons—and in part from what seems to be a sense that things go better when "guys know their roles." So it was likely to be an interesting ride when Manuel began the 2011 season with Brad Lidge on the DL and no set closer in place.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as tight an entanglement of bad luck with good as what happened next. Jose Contreras started the year as The Man in the ninth inning, converted every save opportunity that came his way… and got hurt. That gave Ryan Madson another shot at the Scarlet C after a two-plus year flirtation with the role--and this time he got on it like Bill Conlin (hey, congrats Bill!) on a free buffet, locking down save after save… until he got hurt. The next man in line was Antonio Bastardo, who completed his stunning ascent from borderline major-leaguer to reliable lefty-slayer to all-purpose setup badass to unhittable closer, converting all seven of his save opportunities to date. (Before this weekend, when his Saturday hiccup against the Padres put a dent in his numbers, Bastardo’s ERA+ for the season was an unfathomable 385; for context, Mariano Rivera’s best ever full-season mark was 319.)
When Madson came back from the DL, it was announced that he’d work his way back into the closer role. In his fourth appearance back, Friday night against the Padres, there he was out there for the ninth inning, in relief of Cole Hamels, trying to lock down a 3-1 lead. He set down three members of the admittedly weak San Diego lineup in order to earn his 16th save.
And even after Bastardo scuffled Saturday—requiring an eighth-inning bailout from David Herndon and a Madson cleanup in the ninth—Manuel delivered on his promise that both Madson and Bastardo would have save opportunities going forward. With Madson having pitched in the team's last three games, Bastardo came back less than 24 hours after his worst game of the season to set down San Diego 1-2-3 in the 9th to secure a Roy Halladay win.
We’re now looking at a possible bullpen usage pattern that would have been unimaginable just months ago. The Phillies might actually deploy their two best relievers based on game situations and other considerations (recent workloads, for instance; hence Madson's unavailability Sunday) that matter rather than based on the odious Save statistic and that notion of "guys in their roles." To be a bit more apocalyptic about it, CHARLIE MANUEL HAS UNLEASHED BASTADSON. The two-headed closer surfaces but rarely, though its pedigree is a strong one--as Roger McDowell (22 saves) and Jesse Orosco (21) of the 1986 world champion New York Mets can attest.
To be clear, Manuel certainly didn't mean to untether this beast: we got here thanks to a set of unlikely and probably unrepeatable circumstances. Were it not for Lidge’s spring injury, the job never would have come open, at least not unless and until he coughed it up; if Contreras hadn’t gotten hurt, Madson might not have gotten another chance; had he stayed off the DL, Bastardo probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to show that he could handle the ninth inning. But here we are—with two pitchers who have proven that they can do the job but don’t have so much history or ego at stake that they’ll get their panties bunched if it’s the other guy who gets the Save.
(And not to get super-greedy, but it could get even better: if Lidge, now active off the DL, shows that he can be effective, and/or Contreras gets healthy and does the same, and/or the Phillies trade for one more quality relief arm, and/or Joe Blanton or Vance Worley finds himself in the post-season bullpen should the Phillies make it that far, Manuel might have even more latitude to play match-ups and otherwise deploy his pitching assets for reasons more compelling than "because this is how we do it." A true bullpen hydra scenario might yet emerge, for the first time since the 1990 Reds.)
The story of the 2011 Phillies has been a rotation that was billed in advance as the best in the game and the best the club has ever had, and has lived up to that hype. But as July heads into August, the team finds itself with a scaled down but somewhat parallel situation among its relief corps—a happy accident that further boosts the odds of a happy ending to a memorable season.