PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies had the best bullpen in the National League in 2008, when they won the World Series.
It held leads. It kept games close when they trailed. It routinely provided the club with an opportunity to win.
The current Phils enter this weekend's series against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park with a wildly inconsistent 'pen at best. It has a 4.84 ERA, which is the highest mark in the NL and ranks 27th in baseball.
"It's something that needs to be more consistent, but I think across the board, we need to play good defense, we need to run the bases well, we need to pitch well," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "I think if the guys stay on the field, they will hit enough. We just have to play the game right and do the smaller things -- pitching and defense. That's why Atlanta and Milwaukee are having so much success. They're pitching real well. We've talked about it. That's what we're looking to do -- be consistent with the important parts of the game, and that's pitching and defense."
The Phils have committed the sixth-fewest errors in baseball, and since committing two in a loss to the Braves on April 14, they have posted just one in their past 13 games. No other team has fewer than five errors in that stretch. So the defense has held its own, and the rotation should improve with Cole Hamels back, Tuesday's performance against the Mets notwithstanding, taking pressure off the relief corps.
But there are nights that the bullpen will need to pitch, and when it does, it must be better than it has been.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon has had 10 scoreless appearances since he blew a save on April 2 in Texas. He has allowed five hits, two walks and has struck out seven in 10 innings in that span. Papelbon entered the season as a question mark, but the early returns are encouraging.
"He's mixing up some of his pitches, but a lot of it is about moxie and believing you can get people out at the end of the game," Amaro said. "He's a closer. He's always been a closer. He's figuring out ways to get people out. That's all you can ask about the guy pitching at the end."
But what has hurt the bullpen more than anything has been the ineffectiveness of young pitchers the organization thought had turned a corner. It has been the story the past two years. Pitchers such as B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus, Phillippe Aumont and Jeremy Horst have pitched well late in seasons, but haven't followed up on that success.
As a result, just three of the seven pitchers in the bullpen (Antonio Bastardo, Jake Diekman and Mario Hollands) are homegrown. The others (Papelbon, Mike Adams, Shawn Camp and Jeff Manship) signed as free agents or Minor League free agents.
The Phillies are hoping that some of their young, homegrown (and inexpensive) pitchers can step up. It hasn't happened in awhile. From 2004-13, Philadelphia had 15 relief pitchers throw 50 or more innings in a season with less than a 3.50 ERA. Just four of those relievers were homegrown: Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Geoff Geary and Bastardo. The others, the Phils acquired in trades (Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge), signed as free agents (Clay Condrey, Jose Contreras, Chad Durbin, Tom Gordon, Chan Ho Park, J.C. Romero and Papelbon), claimed off waivers (Aaron Fultz) or selected in the Rule 5 Draft (David Herndon).
"I think it's like any young player," said Amaro, asked for theories about why the team's young pitchers have struggled. "It's confidence. Gain confidence and believe in your stuff. We told them when we sent them down, 'You have Major League stuff.' It's a matter of harnessing it and throwing it in the right spot and being able to trust it. It's about trust. If they can believe and learn and understand they can throw the ball somewhere and have somebody hit it ... that's OK. We don't expect them to be perfect. We expect them to be consistent."
"All of them show flashes of what you want, whether it's commanding the fastball or getting the offspeed pitches over," assistant general manager of player personnel Benny Looper said. "Then they don't. They just need to have that consistency where you trust when you send them out there, they're going to throw quality strikes."
Phillies fans looking for outside help shouldn't hold their breath. If a team has a good relief pitcher, there is almost zero chance it will trade him in May. But there are unsigned relievers still out there, like Madson, Kevin Gregg and Joel Hanrahan, although there has been some buzz around baseball that Madson may not pitch again.
"We've had contact with all of those guys," Amaro said. "We'll see."
Double-A right-hander Ken Giles is throwing 100 mph and dominating hitters in the Eastern League. He has allowed eight hits and two earned runs, issued four walks and struck out 25 in just 13 innings.
"He consistently throws very hard," Looper said. "But there are a couple things he's working on. One, commanding the fastball low in the strike zone. He's throwing too many pitches up, belt-high, that are hittable in the big leagues. The other thing is commanding his slider. He's got to have that second pitch. It's a good pitch, and he's making improvements with it, but he's got to have a couple pitches he can go to. If big league hitters are sitting on his fastball and it's thrown belt-high, they're going to catch up with it.
"He's making great progress. We love his arm and we love where he's headed, but he's where he needs to be right now. At some point, we'd consider getting him against more veteran lineups like you'd see in Triple-A. That would happen at some point."
In the meantime, the current relievers need to perform, and the ones sent to Triple-A (Rosenberg, De Fratus and Brad Lincoln) need to show enough consistency to warrant a callback.
"It's trusting their ability, because they all have big league talent," Amaro said. "It's a matter of putting it together when it's time to ring the bell."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.