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McCaffery: On verge of another party, Phillies’ bullpen could determine how long it will last

PHILADELPHIA — The rolls of see-through plastic were tightly rolled up above each of the Phillies’ lockers Sunday afternoon, there to serve as a traditional two-ply baseball symbol.

One was that there would soon be a category five champagne cyclone.

The other: That the baseball chores were as tightly wrapped up.

Neither, as it would happen Sunday, were necessarily accurate, not after the Cubs and Marlins both won afternoon games, and not with Rob Thomson’s bullpen.

As for the celebration of a wild-card spot nicely earned, that will likely come as soon as Tuesday. The bullpen situation, however, is hardly as transparent as those protective sheets. Indeed, there was no more clarity about it on Fan Appreciation Night than on Opening Day of the Grapefruit League.

How will it work in the playoffs? Is there a setup man? A closer? A long-relief specialist? A plan? And have there been many contenders, 156 games into a season, with a bullpen in such eternal flux?

“I think so,” Rob Thomson was saying before a delayed-until-dusk game against the New York Mets. “I’ve seen it a lot of times. Even last year, we maneuvered guys back and forth depending on how they were pitching, depending on the game state and things like that.”

Thomson’s bullpen was set up for such versatility, with Dave Dombrowski adding key pieces last offseason, including three – Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm and Craig Kimbrel – with closing ability. So the Phillies are built to withstand bullpen tremors.

But there was such a move toward cementing Kimbrel, who was in the All-Star Game, as a starter that the club even invented a stadium light show for his ninth-inning marches from the bullpen. Kimbrel, however, was unable to preserve that status because he was unable to protect enough late-season leads. So down the list Thomson ran his finger until recently becoming more dependent on Jose Alvarado, who registered saves against the Mets both Friday and Saturday.

“His cutter has been tremendous,” Thomson said. “He looks like he’s back to what we saw from him at the start of the year. So now we’ve got to take care of him the rest of the way and see that he stays right there.”

That’s what it has come to for a manager of a defending pennant-winner a week before October: Trying to find one pitcher able to reliably close, then being delicate enough with him not to over-play the hand.

“I wouldn’t say Alvie is the closer or Kimbrel is the closer,” he said. “We’re just trying to pick our spots and put them in the game at the right time.”

Seven Phillies have recorded saves this season, with Kimbrel still the heavy leader with 23. But the relief pitchers have been conditioned to prepare for any situation. The Phillies will try to camouflage that as a newer baseball trend, which is somewhat accurate. But it’s one thing to be versatile, another to be scrambling seven games before the tournament.

“I just kind of think that’s the way the game has gone in my career as a whole,” Strahm said. “When I came up with Kansas City, they were well-known for their 7-8-9 matchups that they would always do. Then the league started taking notice. Then Tampa started doing what they were doing, and then everybody started falling into matchups.

“But I’ve said it all year: You have five or six guys down there with closing experience and that makes you a dangerous bullpen.”

Thomson, however, spent years with the Yankees, who had a different way to be dangerous from the bullpen. They would wait until the ninth inning, summon Mariano Rivera from the bullpen and watch an early mass fan retreat to the parking lots.

“It’s not like New York with Mariano every night,” Thomson said. “But we just do it the way we think is best.”

It worked to help inspire a clubhouse-celebration setup, at least, and that was a testimony both to Dave Dombrowski’s strength-in-numbers approach and Thomson’s admirable tolerance.

That it has worked as well as it has – the Phillies remain virtually certain to win the top wild-card spot in the National League, and with that the blessing of playing the entire first-round best-of-three at Citizens Bank Park – is amazing.

It’s not every team that can survive the mass ego-testing that can sprout from ever-changing bullpen roles. Few, though, have the contenders requiring such selflessness.

“All I can do is speak for myself, and the only thing that matters to me is winning,” said Strahm, who has provided every pitching service this season, starting included. “We feel that we have a good group whose sole expectation is just winning ballgames. And that’s fun.”

The Phillies, who set the world record for in-season Gatorade baths and who can activate a disco-era clubhouse smoke machine after every victory, have shown they can party. Soon enough, those rolls of plastic will drop and a wild celebration will begin.

After that, their bullpen-management will decide if there will be many more.

Contact Jack McCaffery at

Source: Berkshire mont

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