If it seems like only a few weeks ago that the Phillies looked in danger of punting the 2007 season almost before it had begun, that's because it was. Three weeks ago, to be precise, the team was 1-6, still reeling after an off-day from a hide-your-eyes-ugly 11-5 loss to the Mets and wondering if someone, anyone, could record outs from the bullpen. Ryan Madson had two losses, Geoff Geary had one, Tom Gordon already had a blown save on his game log, and displaced starter Jon Lieber looked like he might be staging a quieter pitcher's version of the legendary Operation Shutdown--or at least making the Phils wish as much.
Things don't look so bad this morning. Through last night's games, the Phillies bullpen ranks 8th of the 16 NL teams with a collective 3.71 ERA; though they're worse on other measures (14th in batting average allowed, 16th in opponents' OPS, 14th in WHIP, etc), that's largely an artifact of the early-season horrors noted above. Swapping out Brett Myers for Lieber, a move we heartily ripped here, has worked well thus far. Geary and Madson have turned things around, and Matt Smith is now walking International League batsmen.
All told, a bullpen that was easily baseball's worst through the first week-plus of the '07 campaign now might be among its best.
Here's what the current reliever corps has done, man by man, from April 11 through May 1:
Madson: 10.2 IP, 8 hits, 1 run, 0 BB, 7 K: 0.84 ERA, 0.75 WHIP
Myers: 8.1 IP, 11 hits, 1 run, 3 BB, 13 K; 1.08 ERA, 1.68 WHIP
Gordon: 7.1 IP, 7 hits, 3 runs, 4 BB, 7 K; 3.68 ERA, 1.5 WHIP
Geary: 8.1 IP, 5 hits, 1 run, 4 BB, 9 K; 1.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP
Antonio Alfonseca: 10 IP, 10 hits, 4 runs, 3 BB, 2 K; 3.60 ERA, 1.3 WHIP
Francisco Rosario: 7 IP, 9 hits, 5 R, 2 BB, 7 K; 6.43 ERA, 1.57 WHIP
Fabio Castro: 2 IP, 2 hits, 1 R, 0 BB, 2 K; 4.50 ERA, 1.0 WHIP
TOTAL: 53.2 IP, 52 hits, 16 runs, 16 BB, 47 K: 2.68 ERA, 1.277 WHIP
Let's not get carried away here. For all his strikeout prowess from the 'pen, Myers has been a bit lucky to have surrendered just one run given all the baserunners he's put on. Alfonseca, with his near-total inability to strike guys out, seems to be quickly approaching his sell-by date. Geary and Madson, while both serviceable relievers, aren't this good. And Castro and Rosario aren't yet known quantities.
That said, this bullpen makes sense. Gordon has started to find his curveball, which is the X-factor that determines whether he's Mitch Williams or Steve Bedrosian. Myers has thrived in high-leverage situations, coming in with guys on base and recording big strikeouts--exactly what Lieber couldn't do as a reliever. Castro, for now at least, just has to control lefty hitters. And so long as Charlie Manuel can mix and match the other four righties--a groundball from Alf, amazing feats of escape from Geary, Rosario blowing guys away with heat, Madson keeping the ball down and holding small leads or deficits where they are--they'll be effective. Who would have believed that in mid-April?