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Bullpen microcosm of Phillies' season

Mackanin seeking consistency from relievers, position players
MLB.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies boasted baseball's best bullpen over the past month when they welcomed the Astros to town Monday. But there were still questions in search of answers, those only attainable through more reps and more playing time.

That much was clear to Phillies manager Pete Mackain before Monday's 13-4 loss at Citizens Bank Park. It was even more evident after.

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PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies boasted baseball's best bullpen over the past month when they welcomed the Astros to town Monday. But there were still questions in search of answers, those only attainable through more reps and more playing time.

That much was clear to Phillies manager Pete Mackain before Monday's 13-4 loss at Citizens Bank Park. It was even more evident after.

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Leading the relief corps in that span were a trio with Triple-A games on the ledger this season. Luis Garcia, who earned his first save of the season Sunday, hasn't allowed a run in his past 15 outings, posting a 0.70 WHIP, striking out a batter per inning and holding opponents to a paltry .119/.188/.153 slash line.

Video: MIL@PHI: Garcia locks his first save for the Phillies

Garcia's former IronPigs teammate Ricardo Pinto had allowed just a single run during his second callup since June 26 before scuffling as Monday's game restarted after a lengthy rain delay, allowing six runs in 1 1/3 innings. Across both callups this season, his ERA entering play Monday was 3.46 before rising to 5.02.

Hoby Milner was perfect in five innings since his debut June 24, but allowed an inherited runner and two more in the following innings.

Entering Monday, both traditional and new-age analytics alike adored the production from the Phils' relievers since June 25. Their 2.18 ERA was the best in the Majors, and they held the lowest opponent batting average (.198), on-base percentage (.262), and slugging percentage (.299).

They also topped the charts with a the best weighted on-base average (.241) by 17 points -- the same difference between second- and fifth-place bullpens -- and the third best strikeout rate, over a quarter of all batters. Their 2.71 fielding independent pitching both ranked a mile ahead of the competition.

But of those statistics, old-school know-how and new-school smarts alike, none are particularly predictive. Those numbers will suffer after Monday, when the bullpen combined to allow nine runs in six innings.

The recent success, and Monday's subpar outing, underscore the Phillies' main problem in 2017. The club still doesn't know what it has. Nearly every player is partaking in a season-long audition. And even when players perform, their track record is dubious and the longevity of their production is up for speculation.

"[Garcia] certainly looked like a closer [Sunday], he did a good job. Threw strikes and he has the stuff to be one," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said.

"I'm certainly encouraged by what I see."

Encouraged, but not sold. Mackanin said he wouldn't be "fooled" by the performance.

"Once you put that [closer] tag on them, there creates more pressure," he said.

This has been his hesitation in formally naming a closer all season. Of the proven veterans Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek, neither could -- or in Neshek's case wanted -- to hold down the closer role.

Video: PHI@MIA: Neris retires Ozuna to lock down the save

Key players expected to continue their development into potential cornerstones haven't made that anticipated progress, both offensively and from the mound. Hector Neris, the team's non-official -- yet still quite official -- closer is primary among them. No reliever embodies those lingering questions like he does.

"[Neris] has been inconsistent," Mackanin said. "When he pitched in the eighth inning, his split was crisp and had good bite to it consistently and he hasn't quite had that. I don't know if it's pitching in the ninth inning as a closer or whatever it is. He's not pitching as well this year as he did last year.

"Some are [taking steps forward], some aren't. It's all bundled together. It's a search, a journey that we have to start getting to the end of the journey."

Ben Harris is a reporter for MLB.com based in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Phillies