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Joe Girardi And The Phillies Bullpen Are A Flammable Combination

Joe Girardi in a red and blue Phillies warm-up top
Adam Hagy/Getty Images

Except for a few brief periods over the team’s 140-year history, Philadelphia sports fans have generally been exasperated by the Phillies. In extremely recent history much of that fan frustration comes from the bullpen, which had a 7.06 ERA in 2020 (the highest in 90 years) and threatened the record for blown saves in a season last season. The Phillies went out and signed two sluggers this offseason in the hopes the bullpen would not be as much of an issue. They got some relievers, too, but the plan was clear: Score enough runs that it doesn’t matter what the bullpen does.

About that. Though they started slowly, the Phillies sluggers have indeed slugged for much of the year. It has not always been enough. Earlier this month the Phillies choked away a 7-1 lead in the ninth and lost to the Mets. Last night the bullpen did its thing again, though it wasn’t the pitchers but the manager that is squeezing the old exasperation trigger.

Here’s why Joe Girardi gets the blame for last night’s 6-5 loss to the Braves. After Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth to give the Phils a 5-4 lead, Girardi left in Nick Nelson to pitch the ninth. Nelson had thrown 17 pitches the inning before, and went on to give up a double to Dansby Swanson, who moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly by Ronald Acuña. Oh, yeah, and then Acuña scored on William Contreras’s single because Roman Quinn dropped the sac fly. Braves win.

Phillies closer Corey Knebel did not pitch.

Closer Corey Knebel was not available to pitch because he’d worked the previous two days, Monday in a non-save situation, and Girardi has a policy of not using relievers three days in a row because it’s a long season and, “The prize is in October,” as he says.

Jim Salisbury, NBC Sports Philadelphia

In addition to Knebel, relievers Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado were also unavailable. So how did it happen that the entire back of the bullpen was out of commission? It begins with the Phillies 4-3 win over the Dodgers on Sunday. The Phillies were about to lose that one until Max Muncy bungled a game-ending groundout in the bottom of the 10th; speedy Roman Quinn scored from second to give the Phillies a 4-3 win. All good! But the issue there was Knebel, who has been the team’s closer this year. He threw 23-pitches in the 10th, allowing a run but getting the win.

The Phillies beat the Braves 7-3 on Monday; they were up 7-0 at one point. Perhaps worried about another implosion like the one against the Mets, Girardi pitched Knebel on Tuesday. (Baseball-Reference gave the Phillies a 99 percent chance of victory entering the ninth, but come on, it’s the Phillies bullpen, so we can round down to 98 or 97 percent on principle.)

Knebel, Dominguez, and Alvarado being unavailable meant that James Norwood—a pitcher with an 8.53 ERA who was partially responsible for the collapse against the Mets—came into a tied game in the sixth on Tuesday night. Norwood pitched to four batters, gave up a pair of runs, and didn’t get an out.

“We were short, really short tonight in the bullpen,” Girardi said postgame. Phillies pitchers will all be rested for the real prize in October—really rested, if they’re at home as usual. Knebel said he was fine with Girardi’s rule, but also Knebel really shouldn’t have pitched Monday with a 7-3 lead in a game the Phillies were almost certain to win. If it is hard to figure out a process, here, you are closer to understanding why and how Phillies fans are feeling what they’re feeling.

Girardi’s bullpen rule stretches back to his time with the Yankees. In order to limit workload, especially early in the season, pitchers are limited to back-to-back outings. “It’s the thought process from the beginning—I don’t throw guys three days in a row,” he said in 2015. “We think really hard about it. And that’s kind of why I stay pretty steadfast to my rules about no more than two days in a row just because I want them healthy and strong in September.”

Back in 2009, when the Yankees won the World Series, his pitchers really were pretty fresh. Only two relievers were in the top 25 in AL appearances (Phil Coke had 72 appearances, Mariano Rivera 66). The Yankees had a 3.58 bullpen ERA during Girardi’s time in New York. But, yeah, a team’s bullpen is going to be better when it has Mariano Rivera at the back end of it. (Rivera came out to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”; Corey Knebel comes out to the Godsmack version of the Joe Walsh song “Rocky Mountain Way.” Jesus Christ.)

Last season, Girardi actually did allow his relievers to pitch three days in a row starting in early August. The first to do so was Archie Bradley, who came in on August 2 for the third day in a row and blew a save in a game the Phillies eventually won. Bradley told the Inquirer around then that he could pitch more: “I’m a proven major-league arm. I’ve gone three in a row, I’ve gone four out of five—and I’m ready to take on that burden and that role of pitching as much as I can to win this NL East.”

In August and September, Bradley had a 4.57 ERA with two blown saves and a negative win probability added. The Phillies were 15-6 in games he pitched and still didn’t sniff the playoffs. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether to blame the artist or the tools. Could be both.