Major League Baseball has a cliche as old as the game itself—it's a marathon, not a sprint.
In other words, outcomes of single games are less important than the adjustments made to account for those outcomes. And it doesn't matter who's ahead at Mile 4, it's about being in front at Mile 26.
Eight months after elbow surgery, the return of El Titan de Bronze (as Jose Contreras was once nicknamed by Fidel Castro) to the Phillies bullpen could mean a lot when it comes to where this team wants to be at Mile 26 and beyond.
In the short term, Contreras' presence in the bullpen gives the Phils a proven arm to work the seventh inning, with Chad Qualls occupying the eighth inning slot and Jonathan Papelbon closing games out.
This aspect will be especially important with Cliff Lee hitting the disabled list with an oblique strain, as his replacement in the rotation, Kyle Kendrick, obviously doesn't have the same kind of ability when it comes to working late into games (Kendrick has thrown one complete game in 98 career starts, Lee finished six just last season).
Contreras has shown signs of wearing down, between the recent injuries, poor play in his rehab assignment (four earned runs in 4.1 innings), and his advanced age (officially he is 40, but he might really be closer to 50). Still, though, he has a history of getting major-league hitters out, and that's a skill that can't be overlooked.
Another benefit from his return is the lightened workload to Antonio Bastardo, who hasn't looked sharp, particularly with his control and against right-handed batters. Contreras' infusion into the bullpen allows Bastardo to go back to his former role, as a lefty specialist, as he works his way back into 2011 form.
If Contreras can remain healthy and productive, the biggest coup will be for the starting pitchers, though.
With a solid bullpen arm that can be counted on to get the game to the setup man, there will be far less pressure on the starters to throw seven innings every start, and thus, to keep their pitch counts low throughout the game.
Roy Halladay is 35 years old, and has thrown more than 2,500 innings in his career. Eventually, if he is a human, he will start to break down. So tempering his workload has to be a priority for Charlie Manuel this summer.
Vance Worley hasn't thrown more than 182 innings in a season in his career, including both minor- and major-league ball. No one knows what to expect of him after a full season as a big-league starter and 220 innings.
If these guys were to fade at all in September, any hope the Phillies had to capture a sixth consecutive NL East crown likely would fade with them. The difference between them making it to the finish line and falling short might lie with the confidence their manager has in turning the game over to the 'pen.
If the ageless Cuban can return to his 2010 form, that confidence will grow immensely, and the chance of a return to the postseason will follow.
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