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In need of a second weapon, the Phillies brandished their bullpen

A win-now team should have a couple of different ways they can win.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are going to lose a lot this season, and they aren’t going to have a precise explanation for each and every L. There will be dropped balls, missed locations, and days where they just don’t show up. But some games aren’t worthy of analysis; you are just going to lose 60-90 times a season, no matter who you are. On occasion, you’ll just be throwing yourself onto the gears of baseball and getting ground into mush.

The idea is to have as few of these losses as possible. You want to know what went wrong because then you can fix it. Or, since this is baseball, you want to know what is wrong so that you can say that it is not wrong, until it is wrong enough that you make a change and finally address, in retrospect, yeah, it had been pretty wrong for a while.

Jake Arrieta had an absolutely miserable end to 2018, and by the end of his first start of 2019, did not appear to have freed himself from the curse that haunted him last summer: The Phillies won his first appearance, 5-1, as he surrendered only three hits , but walked six batters in six innings. It doesn’t take the nerdliest baseball scientist to push their glasses up on their nose and tell you that control issues will always come back to bite you.

But in his next start, Arrieta allowed five hits and three walks to the Twins, giving up three earned runs on a pair of dingers and a wild pitch. Again, not ideal, but three runs is no longer an insurmountable task for the Phillies offense, and with Arrieta on the mound for seven frames, he again gave the Phillies a start that wasn’t that bad. It was the bats that couldn’t come through, and, even more crucially, Seranthony Dominguez, who invited two Twins on base with a lead-off walk and a hit by pitch, sent them home on an Eddie Rosario bomb that gave the Twins their late three-run cushion.

So, we entered Arrieta’s start in game one against the Marlins with the hope that the dominant start he had been circling in his first two appearances could finally come to fruition against a team that had lost eight out of nine games since April 1. Fortunately, it did, with Arrieta pumping change-ups at them, hitting a career high in swings and misses on that pitch, allowing five hits and a walk with eight strikeouts—the kind of start we’ve hoped to see more of since his signing last spring. What also was of great help to him was the nine runs scored by his offense, which strung six hits in a row during a particularly satisfying five-run rally.

A 9-1 win, even over a last place team, felt like good enough bleach to get the two crushing losses to the Nationals out of people’s heads. Maybe that momentum would carry into the next game, when the only starting pitcher approaching “reliable” for this team would get the ball for a shot at a series win. Zach Eflin was then, naturally, bludgeoned by the Fish, lasting only four innings, allowing ten hits and six earned runs—but in typical Eflin style, no walks. Not a command issue for our boy out there; just the Marlins just hit the living crap out of him. Then the Sixers got booed off the court. At home. In the playoffs. All in all, not a great Saturday in Philadelphia.

After two blow-out wins for either team, what was this series missing at this point? That’s right, a 1-1 slog through 14 innings. Game three saw the Phillies stifled by Jose Urena and a sextet of Marlins relievers whose dead-eyed stares were off-putting enough to keep the Phillies’ bats quiet again. But with the offense out, the Phillies bullpen put together its best work of the season, with seven relievers combining to allow only three hits, two walks, and no runs. Victor Arano put together a truly frightening performance of note, and finally, Jean Segura was able to golf a pitch out of the stadium.

You expect, and demand, the Phillies offense to eventually come through. And the rotation will right itself, but it will take longer, given the longer load time for starting pitchers who still stricken with spring fever. But the bullpen had been central to the two winnable losses this team suffered to the Nationals, in extremely pro-active ways: Hitting batters, walking batters, walking in runs.

The six hurlers who held Sunday’s game together until Segura could find his low and away pitch were, after Adam Morgan and Pat Neshek, a series of guys looking for or trying to continue their comebacks: Hector Neris, looking to keep his scoreless April intact; David Robertson, trying to stay loose after allowing six hits and five walks combined in his first three appearances; Seranthony Dominguez, who has allowed only three base runners in four appearances since his Minnesota meltdown on April 6; Arano, climbing out of a deep pre-season hole; and Jose Alvarez, who was named the face of the bullpen’s failures after getting absolutely demolished by the Nationals on April 9. There were hints on Sunday that things could start to take shape in the pen and give the Phillies something to rely on outside of their offense—which occasionally takes a night off, too.

Entering win-now mode puts a lot of pressure on a team that did very little fortify its pitching staff over the winter, compared to the upgrades the lineup received. Losing two games that slipped through their fingers was a good reminder of what it feels like to simply run out of baseball before the offense can find its footing, so the Phillies could really benefit from another weapon to defend themselves.

It’s too early, and the Phillies just won a series, thanks in part to the bullpen, which until Sunday had yet to announce itself as anything more than a weak point. Anyone taking a bite out of their coffee mugs from duress should probably switch to decaf. But still, the Phillies need to be able to do more than smash opponents with their bats, because some nights, even the worst team in the division is going to be able to smash a little harder.

“It’s just, this game is very humbling,” Jake Arrieta told reporters after his game one victory. “I’ll never forget that.”