Is the back of the Phillies bullpen secure heading into the 2023 playoff push?

Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel, left, celebrates with catcher Garrett Stubbs after the final out in the team’s 5-4 win in a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, June 15, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

It was the bottom of the eighth inning. The Philadelphia Phillies led the Milwaukee Brewers 4-2 in the final game of their three-game set, looking to avoid getting swept. After a four-inning start from Ranger Suarez, the Phillies bullpen had thrown three scoreless innings thus far. Now, it was time for the back of the bullpen to do their job.

Phillies manager Rob Thomson has his game plan set for how he wants to approach the final two innings. First, Jose Alvarado pitches a scoreless eighth inning. Then, Craig Kimbrel comes in for the save in the ninth. Trust two of your high-leverage veterans in their typical spots out of the bullpen. Seems simple enough, right? Until you look at the pair’s recent performances.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – APRIL 05: Philadelphia Phillies Pitcher Jose Alvarado (46) delivers a pitch during the ninth inning of the Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies on April 5, 2021, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Recent Struggles from Phillies vets, Alvarado and Kimbrel

Friday night, the Phillies were leading the Brewers 5-3 as Alvarado entered to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Allowing a lead-off single to start the inning, Alvarado quickly found himself in difficult waters, loading the bases on a walk to former-Phil Carlos Santana with one out in the inning.

The next batter, Alvarado walked Tyrone Taylor, walking in a run in the process. After striking out the following batter, a costly (and increasingly rare) error from Alec Bohm scored all three base runners, giving the Brewers the 7-5 lead to which they would hold onto in the top of the ninth. Though he only allowed one earned run on the day, Alvarado’s struggles and lack of command resulted in four runs on the inning and a loss added to his ledger.

Kimbrel, meanwhile, most recently pitched on August 30th, the final game of the Phillies’ successful nine-game home stand. After allowing a base runner on a third strike wild pitch to start the inning, Kimbrel allowed three runs on the inning, blowing the save and giving the Los Angeles Angels a 10-8 victory.

The Phillies’ other loss on the home stand came at the expense of Kimbrel as well. Kimbrel walked the first two batters he faced in the top of the 10th inning against the San Francisco Giants on August 23rd. With the bases loaded, two runs scored on a single from Paul DeJong before the final run scored on a sacrifice fly double play to end the inning. The three runs would be all the Giants needed, keeping the Phillies to one in their half of the 10th as the Phillies lost 8-6.

Phillies Craig Kimbrel
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel, delivers in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, May 26, 2023, in Atlanta. Kimbrel celebrated his 400th career save. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Getting to the Bottom of the Situation

So, are Alvarado and Kimbrel running out of gas, or were these recent performances the worst we’ll get the rest of the way?

The answer may lie in their performances on Sunday afternoon.

With his sinker capping at 97.7 MPH on the day, Alvarado struck out Taylor to start off the inning strong. Joey Wiemer then reached base on a throwing error by Trea Turner. Next up, Victor Caratini strung a liner down the third base side. Edmundo Sosa made a diving stop, getting an out at second base on the play. With Andruw Monasterio up with two down, Alvarado closed the inning out with a full count strikeout. Though he still threw a few of his trademark wild fastballs, Alvarado’s control issues were in check on the day.

Then, in the bottom of the ninth, came Kimbrel’s chance to earn a save. He caught former MVP Christian Yelich swinging on a 2-2 knuckle curve in the dirt for the first out of the inning. After a single from Mark Canha into left field, Kimbrel recorded his second out of the inning on a fly ball by WIlliam Contreras into right field. Kimbrel then quickly disposed of Santana on three pitches for the final out of the game on a strikeout.

For Alvarado, Sunday’s success was one of four shutout performances since returning from the injured list. His only two blemishes since returning are the aforementioned match with the Brewers and a one-run inning against the Angels on August 29th. Kimbrel, meanwhile, has a similar story. Though he has allowed five earned runs in his past seven innings pitched, all five runs have come on the two outings mentioned above against the Angels and Giants.

Phillies Greg Soto
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Gregory Soto (30) works against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Toronto. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press via AP)

Phillies’ Bullpen Needs Their Eyes on the Prize

The Phillies have a difficult dance to play right now. First, they obviously need to play some of their best baseball right now to ensure a playoff spot as well as home-field advantage in the Wild Card Round. However, they also cannot find themselves in a similar situation to last October when the Phillies’ pitching staff simply ran out of gas against the Houston Astros in the World Series. So, they need to balance winning now and preserving strength for the postseason.

One such way potentially to do so is to rest some of their top arms if fatigue is creeping in. Looking at the recent performances of Alvarado and Kimbrel… its a mixed bag. If they continue to do well, keep riding them. If not, give them rest now so that they will be ready in October. Gregory Soto is an automatic candidate for time off since he has the Phillies’ highest ERA over the past 30 days at 7.27.

But for Alvarado and Kimbrel, Thomson needs to be willing to sit either of them if they show signs of regression over the final month of action. There are other members of the bullpen such as Seranthony Dominguez and Matt Strahm who have logged quality innings over the past month and could fill in in the later innings as needed should either have issues.

Additionally, the Phillies could potentially pivot Cristopher Sanchez or Ranger Suarez to the bullpen to stretch out some of the ‘pen if needed going into the final weeks of the season. The only wrinkle in that plan is the Phillies’ doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves on September 11th. There will be no need for a six or even a five-man rotation come the postseason for the Phillies, so it may be worth moving a starter to the bullpen for some action now to get them back into that rhythm.

Regardless, Alvarado and Kimbrel pitched well against the Brewers on Sunday afternoon. With a little luck, perhaps this outing serves as the perfect indicator that the Phillies’ top two relievers are in tip-top shape in time for the September push. If that is not the case, however, then Thomson will need to be decisive in shifting the bullpen around not only for the sake of finishing strong, but more importantly, for the Phillies’ postseason plans.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin