PHILADELPHIA — Jake Diekman sat in front of his locker when the Phillies clubhouse opened to the media Monday night.
Diekman stared straight ahead with his back to the center of the clubhouse. About 20 minutes before he gave up a ninth-inning grand slam to Dan Uggla of the Atlanta Braves. The blast propelled the Braves to a 9-6 win.
Reporters and television cameras waited behind Diekman. The reliever finally stood, turned and faced the reporters, who moved in.
It is one of baseball’s unwritten rules that if a reliever blows a save, he must stand in front of his locker, talk to reporters and take responsibility for the defeat.
But such interviews are awkward. The wounds of defeat are still fresh.
“What happened?” a reporter asked.
“Hung a slider,” Diekman said sharply. “You watched it, right?”
Diekman quickly regained his composure and answered the rest of the media’s questions. The interview lasted a little longer than a minute.
Nothing else needed to be said.
Baseball games tend to blend together during the course of six-month season. But some wins and losses define a team. Monday night was one of those games for the Phillies.
The loss came in a high-profile, early-season series. The Braves (9-4) are the defending National League East champions. Both teams entered the series on three-game winning streaks. Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said before Monday’s game that the series was a measuring stick for both Atlanta and Philadelphia (6-7). The second game of their series was postponed by rain Tuesday night. It will be made up at a later time.
Monday night’s loss illustrated a key deficiency for the Phillies — a leaky bullpen. Philadelphia relievers entered the game exhausted and completely collapsed.
The Braves led 2-1 when Phillies reliever B.J. Rosenberg took the mound in the top of the eighth inning. He was pitching for the third straight day. Rosenberg faced three hitters and allowed home runs to all of them — the first time in at least 100 years that has happened, according to retrosheet.org, a website that chronicles baseball history.
The Phillies came to the plate in the eighth inning down 5-1, but they rallied. Domonic Brown’s three-run home run gave them a 6-5 lead. Citizens Bank Park was as loud as it has been all season.
The Phillies normal closer Jonathan Paplebon was unavailable because he had pitched in three straight games. Before Monday’s game, Sandberg told Diekman that he would be the closer that night.
Diekman, 27, had never closed a major-league game before. Perhaps his emotions got the best of him. His pitches measured 98 mph on the Citizens Bank scoreboard. But he was wild. He loaded the bases with no outs on two walks and a fielder’s choice.
“I felt good,” he said. “I just wasn’t throwing strikes and attacking the zone. You can’t walk people like that.”
The Phillies bullpen was a source of angst on Philadelphia and South Jersey sports talk shows Tuesday.
The Phillies bullpen began Tuesday last in the National League with a 5.53 ERA. The team ERA of 6.45 in the seventh inning or later is also last in the NL.
One of the problems with the bullpen is the team’s starters. The relievers have been overused because the starters haven't pitched well.
Philadelphia starters have pitched into the seventh inning just twice in the first 13 games. The starters have thrown 73 1-3 innings, which ranks No. 12 in the 15-team NL.
Diekman is second in the NL in appearances with eight. He insisted Monday night that he’s not tired.
“I fee fine,” he said.
The Phillies — at least publicly — continue to insist that the bullpen is fine. The Phillies activated Mike Adams from the disabled list after Monday’s game. They hope he can bring some stability to the bullpen, but he’s 35 and coming off shoulder surgery.
Fans are beginning to clamor for minor-league reliever Ken Giles, who has struck out 14 in six scoreless innings in double-A this season.
Sandberg pointed out that the bullpen pitched well in a weekend sweep of the Miami Marlins, allowing three runs and striking out 11 in 12 2-3 innings.
“We’ve had some good bullpen work,” Sandberg said.
But until the Phillies relievers and starters become more consistent, it’s hard to imagine the team contending for a playoff spot.
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