As the Phillies see their playoff hopes fade by the day, the number of plausible scapegoats grows accordingly. The most common story I'm hearing to explain what happened to a team that led the NL East for most of the summer is that the offensive struggles of June, July and August ended just as key members of a bullpen that had been dominant for four and a half months turned into pumpkins, ensuring that the team would keep spinning its wheels just as the long-becalmed Mets suddenly turned into world-beaters.
This is true as far as it goes: over the last month exactly, the Phils have lost seven games in which they were tied or leading in the late innings. During that span, Chad Durbin has posted an ERA of 7.36 in 13 games and J.C. Romero has put up a 6.75 ERA in 15 games; Ryan Madson and Clay Condrey have put up solid overall numbers during this stretch, but each contributed to two of the losses.
But while the failures of the four main setup relievers have been the most noticeable--and painful--there's a case to be made that the consistent inability of Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick, the Phillies' fourth and fifth starters, to pitch deep into games has put the most strain on the bullpen, forcing Charlie Manuel to overwork his setup corps and leading to their frequent and devastating late-game failures.
Let's look at Blanton first. In his last six starts, from Aug. 13 to Sept. 8, he's thrown a total of 30.2 innings and pitched to a 5.58 ERA. In order, he accounted for 5, 5, 6, 5.2, 4, and 5 innings. The team went 3-3 in those games, with Blanton's performance and the outcomes as follows:
Aug. 13, @LAD, L 6-7: 5 IP, 4 ER: had 6-1 lead, left leading 6-4, Durbin blew lead, Condrey lost game. Bullpen total: 3 IP, 3 R (4 relievers used)
Aug. 19, Was, W 5-4: 5 IP, 4 ER: Blanton left trailing 4-3; team rallied late for the win. Bullpen: 4 IP, 0 R (3 relievers used)
Aug. 24, LAD, W 5-2: 6 IP, 1 ER: In his only quality start of the last six, Blanton left with score tied 1-1; bullpen allowed a run in the seventh, but offense tied it in ninth and won in eleventh. Bullpen: 5 IP, 1 R (4 relievers used)
Aug. 29, @Chi, L 2-3: 5.2 IP, 2 ER: Blanton left leading 2-1 but with the bases loaded; Eyre walked in tying run, and Condrey allowed the eventual game-winner the following inning. Bullpen: 2.1 IP, 1 ER (3 relievers used)
Sep. 3, @Was, L 9-7: 4 IP, 4 ER: Leading 3-2 in the fifth, Blanton loaded bases with none out and was pulled; two inherited runs scored, and five additional runs scored later. Bullpen: 4 IP, 5 ER (5 relievers used)
Sep. 8, Fla, W 8-6: 5 IP, 4 ER. Blanton "earned" a win, but the strain placed on the bullpen bode ill for the rest of the series. Bullpen 4 IP, 2 ER (5 relievers used)
Durbin and Romero, the biggest culprits in the bullpen meltdowns of the last month, combined for nine appearances in the six Blanton starts since Aug. 13. Durbin pitched five times, accounting for 7.1 innings and allowed six earned runs; Romero made four relief appearances, throwing just 1.1 innings but allowing four earned runs. It's hard to escape the conclusion that if Blanton had managed to pitch into the seventh inning even in two or three of these half-dozen starts--which included two against the bottom-dwelling Nationals--the ripple effect in terms of lighter workload might have turned a couple losses into wins, whether in his starts or someone else's.
This brings us to Kendrick. At a couple points during the 2008 season, I've wondered if we were seeing, or were about to see, the long-predicted moment when the young righty's lack of an effective secondary pitch was about to translate into ugly scoreboard results. We now know that this has happened. Over his last six starts, Kendrick has allowed 40 hits and 16 walks in 23 innings, pitched to an 11.35 ERA, and taken four losses. He's pitched into the sixth inning twice (and failed to complete it both of those times), and failed to make it through four innings three times.
Ironically, it could be argued that Kendrick has placed less strain on the bullpen than Blanton. While Blanton has fallen painfully short of being the rotation stabilizer the Phillies hoped they were trading for in July, he wasn't thrashed in any of his six starts: in fact, he hasn't given up more than four runs in any of them. This meant that Charlie Manuel had to call on his situational pitchers--Durbin, Romero, Madson--again and again in games Blanton had started. Kendrick, by comparison, got his ass handed to him in four of his six starts, leaving the relatively less important relievers--Condrey, Scott Eyre, Les Walrond--to finish out games in which the Phils were trailing badly. The team used four or more relievers in just two of Kendrick's starts:
Aug. 11, @LAD, L 6-8: 3.1 IP, 7 ER; left trailing 7-1. Bullpen: 4.2 IP, 1 ER (2 relievers used)
Aug 16, @SD, L 3-8: 3.2 IP, 6 ER; left trailing 6-2. Bullpen: 4.1 IP, 2 ER (3 relievers used)
Aug. 22, LAD, W 8-1: 5.2 IP, 1 ER; left leading 4-1. Bullpen: 3.1 IP, 0 ER (3 relievers used)
Aug. 27, NYM, L 3-6: 5 IP, 2 ER; left leading 3-2. Bullpen: 4 IP, 4 ER (4 relievers used)
Sep. 1, @Was, L 4-7: 4 IP, 6 ER; left trailing 6-0. Bullpen: 4 IP, 0 ER (3 relievers used)
Sep. 9, Fla, L 8-10: 1.1 IP, 7 ER; left trailing 7-1. Bullpen: 7.2 IP, 3 ER (6 relievers used)
In the dozen starts Blanton and Kendrick made between August 11 and September 9, the Phillies won 4 and lost 8. The two pitchers combined for 53 innings and an ERA of 8.15, allowing 76 hits and 34 walks for an average of nearly 2.1 baserunners per inning. They struck out 28 opposing hitters. While Kendrick accounted for the bulk of those awful numbers, Blanton's inability to pitch deep into games over-exposed an already hard-worked bullpen, leading to a number of the worse losses during a stretch when the team overall went 15-13.
Over the same stretch, the Mets' fourth and fifth starters--John Maine, who made three starts before suffering a season-ending injury; Pedro Martinez; and Jon Niese, an emergency starter--have pitched their team to a 5-5 record in ten starts (off-days have helped the Mets in this respect), throwing 53.2 innings and allowing 32 earned runs for a combined 5.37 ERA. That's at about the low end of what a contender can expect from the bottom 40 percent of the rotation--but combined with great work from the front of the rotation, a newly effective bullpen, and the blazing bat of Carlos Delgado it's been sufficiently better than the Phils to give New York a big edge as the team has gone 20-6 over that stretch to seize control of the NL East.