For most of the season, the Phillies were pretty much impenetrable. At least, in the overall sense that they had a great rotation, one of the better hitting lineups in the National League and a bullpen that consisted of more than enough arms, including a pair of lights-out, late inning pitchers that usually spelled doom for opposing hitters.
That is, until a few weeks ago, when a glaring weakness was revealed in the Phillies' armor, one that was perpetrated by the sudden downfall of one of their stellar relief arms: Antonio Bastardo.
The 25-year-old had a breakout season for the first five months of the season -- supplanting veteran J.C. Romero as the go-to situational lefty out of the 'pen. He transformed himself from a middling starter into a dominating reliever to help vault the already solid bullpen into the stratosphere.
He did so with a mid-90s fastball and a deadly slider that was equally effective against both left- and right-handed hitters. A LOOGY he was not, but rather another option besides Ryan Madson in the late innings of a ballgame.
For the first five months of the season, Bastardo held opposing hitters to a .411 OPS, thanks to 66 strikeouts in 53-1/3 innings of work, while allowing all of four home runs. It's the type of line that most relievers would covet, and for the Phillies, his arm was one of the keys to another successful season.
But then, something happened. On Sept. 3 Bastardo took the hill against the Marlins and had a very un-Bastardo-like outing, where he allowed two runs on a pair of walks without recording an out. At first, it seemed like a blip on the radar screen, one brought on by the sometimes heavy workload that relievers have to face late in the season. In this case, it was Bastardo's third straight day of work -- likely nothing that a few days of rest couldn't fix.
Those days of rest came, but it didn't get much better. Over his next six appearances, spread out over more than two weeks, Bastardo allowed seven earned runs on seven hits, five walks and a pair of homers while striking out only three hitters.
There has been a litany of reasons set forth for his suddenly poor performance. According to Bastardo, he was tired, which makes sense given how young arms typically respond to long seasons. According to Charlie Manuel, he wasn't confident in himself, which is odd, considering that Bastardo seems plenty confident when he embarrassed opposing hitters for most of the season. And just last week, the team said that he may have been tipping his pitches, which I suppose is possible, but too good to be true.
It really doesn't matter why Bastardo has hit a wall at the worst possible time, all that matters is that the Phillies find some way to correct it. If he is tipping his pitches, then a trip to the video room is in order. If he is lacking in confidence, then a pep-talk is the way to go. But, if he is tired (or, even worse, injured), then the Phillies need to figure out some way to mitigate that fatigue and/or pain so that his appearances aren't roller coaster rides for the fans and disastrous for the team.
But, if the Phillies can't find a solution to Bastardo's ailments, it's going to be an uphill battle for the next few weeks as they scramble to find someone to take his place. A difficult job, to be sure, given that Bastardo is the lone left-handed pitcher in the pen, and until recently, one of the two or three reliable relievers, along with Madson and Michael Stutes.
Of course, his struggles could lead to an opening for Vance Worley, who was recently moved to the bullpen for the playoffs, to prove his mettle in the late innings. This season, Worley has held opposing hitters to a .240 batting average, and has been especially tough on lefties, who have managed to hit .203 off the young right-hander. It's not an elegant solution to the problem, because even though Worley has been very good in 2011, he'd be hard pressed to replace the arm of Bastardo.
Hopefully, Bastardo's troubles are more the result of some late season fatigue that can be fixed with some rest before the bright lights come on when the playoffs start this weekend. If the Phillies are lucky, then his recent struggles were nothing more than a passing aberration.
If they aren't so lucky? Well, then the Phillies better hope they get a lot of work out of their starters, so as to put as little reliance on a thinned out 'pen as possible.