As the last-place Philadelphia Phillies began to string together a few wins and showed signs of life with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay back, there was one unsolved issue that lurked in the background: Even with a healthy lineup and rotation, the bullpen remained an unpredictable mess.
Season-ending injuries to Jose Contreras, David Herndon and Mike Stutes left the relief corps with either unproven rookies or Class AAA caliber talent to go alongside closer Jonathan Papelbon and left-handed setup man Antonio Bastardo. With Bastardo struggling mightily this season, it has become a daily challenge just to get to Papelbon.
All of that made Wednesday afternoon's proceedings after Cliff Lee left the game somewhat ironic.
Stuck in a 1-1 game at Dodger Stadium, the Phillies pinch-hit for Lee in the top of the ninth. After failing to score, they turned the ball over to the bullpen.
However, in Philadelphia's 5-3, 11-inning defeat, it was everyone but Papelbon who did their jobs for the Phillies.
After Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, Jeremy Horst and Michael Schwimer combined forces to get through the ninth inning, the Phils scored twice and turned over a 3-1 lead to Papelbon, the closer who represented the Phillies at last week's All-Star Game. The right-hander signed the most lucrative deal for a reliever in major league history last winter.
However, the $50 million closer failed to convert a save for the third time in his last seven tries. Papelbon gave up a leadoff double, a flair single and two infield hits to surrender two runs in the 10th inning.
With a chance to extend their winning streak to five straight and also collect their first three-game series sweep of the season, the Phils instead saw their only reliable reliever blow a two-run lead. Two innings later, Matt Kemp launched a walk-off home run off Jake Diekman to end the game.
"It's tough. It's one of those outings where you really can't do very much about it," Papelbon said. "I feel like I made the pitches I wanted to make, but there were swinging bunts and bloop hits and stuff like that. It's just part of the game. But we've got to stay positive and look at the bigger picture and realize that we came out of the All-Star break taking two series on the road. This was the kind of start that we needed."