The Phillies are Up to Their Old Tricks

Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Phillies were going to be different this year. Owner John Middleton finally found some more of that “stupid money” lost between the couch cushions in the executive suite at 1 Citizens Bank Way and, to his credit, was determined to spend. The front office invested in big bats to supplement the offensive firepower Bryce Harper supplied during his MVP campaign last year. In came Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, two welcome additions to a lineup that needed some more pop, and over the luxury tax threshold the Phillies went.

But the spending didn’t stop there. The bullpen, whose disastrous collective output seriously hamstrung the Phillies’ playoff pushes in 2020 and 2021, would finally get the fixes it desperately needed. Corey Knebel arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers on a one-year, $10 million deal. The Phillies also onboarded Jeurys Familia, who agreed to a one-year pact. Brad Hand, a lefty who had an up-and-down season last year, was brought into the fold as well.

The new additions would complement some of the relief arms already on the roster. Flamethrower Seranthony Dominguez was returning for a full season after a multi-year recovery from an elbow ligament tear. Jose Alvarado, whose lack of control makes Mitch Williams look like Roy Halladay, was coming back, too, and maybe this year he would find the strike zone with more consistency.

There were some other comings and goings that were supposed to make all the difference. One of the new guys in the relief corps was James Norwood, who arrived in Philadelphia by way of trade with the San Diego Padres.

Before last night, I didn’t really know much about Norwood, and I liked it that way. Such is the fate of middle relievers. When you do your job, you aren’t noticed. And that’s a good thing.

Norwood was actually the pitcher of record for the Phillies’ 11th triumph of the season, their last victory to date. He earned the win over the streaking New York Mets by delivering one inning of scoreless baseball. It was an emotional night for the young man, who was making his return to his hometown and pitching just a month after the unexpected passing of his father.

Last night’s assignment was a much easier ask. Staked to a 6-run lead in the top of the 9th inning, Norwood was brought into the game to get three outs against the same Mets squad he shut down a few days ago. That’s it. The game was basically over.

Basically. Nothing is basic with this Phillies team, and nothing is easy. It’s a lesson some of us have to learn and relearn over and over again. Norwood managed to record one out before giving way to Knebel. Before handing the ball to Girardi and leaving the mound, Norwood had conceded one hard-hit ball after another. Included in the barrage was a two-run homer courtesy of Francisco Lindor, who broke out of an 0-for-18 slump.

Knebel put the icing on the collapsed cake. A 7-1 lead morphed into an 8-7 deficit. There was no chance the Phillies were getting up from that gut punch. Mets closer Edwin Díaz did what closers do. He closed the game. It’s a feeling of certainty not experienced in these parts since Brad Lidge’s magical 2008 run. We’ve paid the karmic price for that elusive slider and perfect season ever since.

The only saving grace in the whole fiasco was that most of the Mets fans who invaded the ballpark left early to make the long trek up the New Jersey Turnpike back to Hoboken and Secaucus.

Before the 2022 campaign started, everything had changed. Absolutely nothing’s changed, to quote Pearl Jam. The historically bad 2020 bullpen that only marginally improved in 2021? As it turns out, they’re still capable of delivering epic meltdowns. The faces change, but the bad performances stay the same.

I didn’t have the heart to check out the postmortem on Phillies Postgame Live. I assume it was the same dose of outraged disbelief from Michael Barkann and Ricky Bottalico, the same song and dance they’ve performed since 2020. No offense to them, but I’m just tired of hearing the music.

I’m not mad. I’m not. I’m not. I’M NOT MAD, OKAY?! Any anger directed at this team is pointless. All you can do at this stage is laugh at the steadfast commitment to the bit, to the consistent inconsistency that has defined the Phillies in recent years.

I’m sure the usual suspects have their phones ready and WIP or the Fanatic on speed dial (or both —some of these wretched take-havers are so dedicated that they call both stations to enlighten the Delaware Valley with their pearls of wisdom). Fire Joe Girardi. This is all on the manager. Dallas Green/Jim Fregosi/Larry Bowa/Charlie Manuel wouldn’t have put up with this disaster. Why aren’t Bryce Harper and the boys hitting more home runs? Trade Hoskins. Sign this guy. Demote that guy. It’s an endless series of rhetorical life preservers relentlessly thrown at an organization that struggles to break through the tide of .500 baseball. None of it matters.

The Phillies don’t need a new manager. They need an exorcist to chase away whatever spirit has haunted the bullpen since 2020. It’s the only logical explanation at this point. No organization could be this awful at developing pitchers in their farm system to handle even the thankless, low-leverage middle innings. No franchise could then be so regularly awful at identifying free agent relief arms to fill the resulting roster gap that they end up with hurlers boasting ERAs higher than gas prices.

And of course, as soon as these guys leave Philadelphia, they magically rediscover their form. The Mets bullpen is filled with Phillies castoffs, including Adonis Medina, who offered his new team 2.2 scoreless innings and was the winning pitcher of record.

So there’s always hope for Norwood and Knebel to turn things around as soon as they escape Philadelphia, just like there’s always next year for Phillies baseball. In the meantime, Philly fans will have to content themselves with besting Mets partisans in the stands, because their team certainly looks incapable of winning on the field.

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