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It's Time to Show The Phillies' Bullpen Some Love: Ryan Madson, Contreras, and Bastardo Have Been Stellar

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A baseball team consists of four critical elements: starting pitching, hitting, a bullpen, and a bench.ryan madson

If you haven’t noticed, some attention has been paid to the four-of-a-kind aces that headline the Phillies’ starting rotation.  You may have also read a column or two discussing the nuances of the team’s punchless lineup.

And due to those slumbering bats and the Phillies’ annual scourge of strains, sprains, and overuse injuries, we have even heard plenty about a group of bench players that are suddenly being counted on for far more than an occasional pinch-hitting appearance.

But, the one facet of the Phillies’ roster that has received very little attention this spring has been the only group to actually exceed expectations during the team’s first place run: the bullpen.

The lack of attention to the Phillies’ bullpen actually began a little over six months ago, and was initiated by none other than the team’s General Manager. Ruben Amaro Jr. began the offseason by tabbing the bullpen as his number one priority, just before committing all of his resources to the acquisition of another superstar starter.

In fact, the bullpen was virtually ignored as Amaro Jr. prepared for the 2011 season. Other than the departure of Chad Durbin, the relief corps from 2010 quietly returned as part of the “they won’t be needed that much anyway” strategy.

Well, despite the team’s excellent starting pitching, the bullpen has been counted on quite a bit this year. And it’s time to recognize that they have been among the best in Major League Baseball through one-third of the season.

Perhaps the best way to put the bullpen’s performance into perspective is to compare it to that starting rotation that we all love so much.

Phillies starters have posted 34 wins (1st in the majors) while combining for an ERA of 3.27 (3rd in MLB) and holding opposing hitters to a .249 batting average (11th in MLB).

By comparison, the relievers have notched an ERA of 2.74 (3rd in MLB) with a batting average against of only .227 (7th in MLB).

As for closing out opponents, nobody has done it better than the Phillies’ bullpen. Despite losing Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras in the season’s first few weeks, the bullpen has converted on 18 out of 19 save attempts.

That one blown save is easily the best in the majors. By comparison, seven teams have already suffered at least 10 blown saves, including: Florida, Atlanta, St. Louis, Texas, and Anaheim.

Obviously, the emergence of Ryan Madson as a legitimate stopper has made save opportunities nearly automatic. The powerful righthander has surrendered only 5 earned runs in 24 innings. In fact, most of his appearances have produced almost no anxiety at all for Phillies faithful.

The bridge to Madson has been about as solid as the Walt Whitman, as well. Contreras has yet to surrender an earned run in twelve appearances, while Antonio Bastardo has dominated opposing hitters to the tune of 27 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.27 in his 24 innings of work. Equally impressive has been the 30 innings of relief work chipped in by rookie Mike Stutes and the often-criticized Kyle Kendrick. Those two have combined for an ERA of under 2.00 and have frequently gotten important outs when called upon.

Between Madson, Contreras, Bastardo, Stutes, and Kendrick, the Phillies have had four dependable righties and one killer lefty to call upon when their stud starters have called it a day. The only weak links in this year’s chain of relievers have been the strike-zone challenged J.C. Romero, and the batting practice offerings of Danys Baez.

So, what are the ramifications of the bullpen’s unheralded and unexpected success? For one thing, it could mean that the Phillies can use their available resources to find a bat at this year’s trade deadline instead of another relief arm. That could be even more doable if Joe Blanton returns and either he or Vance Worley are able to provide even greater depth to the bullpen. But ultimately, the best outcome is that the Phillies have a group that looks like it might be capable of handling the 2-3 innings that they will likely be called upon for in those critical postseason games.

So, it’s time we finally give the Phillies’ relievers their moment in the sun. Let’s pay more attention to the work of those unheralded arms. They do their job with little acclaim and often meager (by MLB standards) salaries. They should be the focus of our attention, if even for a moment.

And then it’s back to that struggling offense.

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net 

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Ryan Madson Photo: AP Harold Rumph