When Brad Lidge struck out Tampa Bay's Eric Hinske to give the Philadelphia Phillies a World Series victory in 2008, it capped off a season in which the Philadelphia bullpen performed extraordinarily well.
In fact, you could have called Lidge's performance "perfect". Big contributions from Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero, and Ryan Madson certainly helped the Phillies on their way to the title, as well. They were all part of a fantastic bullpen, something that a team needs these days if it wants to be successful.
Fast forward to 2011, with the Phillies' bullpen facing many questions heading into spring training.
The questions were valid: Would the team miss Brad Lidge? Who was on the disabled list to start the year? Would the team get anything out of Antonio Bastardo? If not, would they be able to find a lefty to perform in Bastardo's place?
Early returns say "no" to missing Lidge and "yes" to finding an effective lefty.
Those are fortunate outcomes for the Phillies, who have been able to put up the most wins in the majors this year, with 40.
They can thank their bullpen.
Incredibly, the Phillies are 29-2 when leading after seven innings. The starters are going deep into games, and the relievers are doing their jobs.
The bullpen as a whole ranks fourth in baseball with a 3.02 ERA.
Ryan Madson himself has 15 saves and has blown just one, last Thursday against the Chicago Cubs. Overall, thanks to Madson, the Phillies have the fewest blown saves in baseball, with two. Furthermore, Madson has appeared in 29 games, posted a 2.17 ERA, and struck out 32 in 29 innings while walking only nine—five of those were intentional.
There is no question that he is setting himself up for a hefty payday this off-season.
There have been two important unsung heroes in the Philadelphia bullpen this year, as well. The first is Bastardo, who has worked himself into the primary left-handed reliever role. The other is Michael Stutes, who impressed many during spring training but began the year in AAA.
Bastardo is 3-0 with a 1.08 ERA and has a strong 10.8 K/9 ratio. He would like to cut down on his walks, and his .170 BABIP is likely unsustainable. However, he is striking guys out, and that's been vital to his success.
Bastardo is also throwing his slider a lot more often than he has in previous years—it's finally become a valuable pitch for Bastardo, who was essentially a one-pitch pitcher when he was last in the majors.
Stutes, meanwhile, came to the big club in late April when veteran reliever Jose Contreras (who has also been efficient this year) went on the disabled list.
It will be hard to send Stutes back to the minors if he continues pitching as he has been. In 21 games, Stutes has pitched 18.2 innings and has an unbelievable 10.13 K/9 ratio to go along with his 2.41 ERA.
There is another side to the story, as there is with anything else in baseball.
The Phillies are in the middle of the pack in WHIP, although this is mitigated by the face that they're tied for the league lead in intentional walks by relievers. They are also in the bottom five in K/BB ratio, and, it's unlikely that a lot of these relievers will be able to keep up their low BABIPs throughout the season.
That said, the bullpen has a lot fewer problems than many other teams.
The walk problems start with Danys Baez and J.C. Romero, players that may not even make the playoff roster.
Romero has been a complete disaster in 2011, although Charlie Manuel has mismanaged Romero and forced him to face right-handers too often.
Baez' lone claim to fame in a Phillies uniform is pitching five innings in the team's victory against the Cincinnati Reds in the 19-inning affair a few weeks back.
If Lidge comes back healthy, and if Madson and Contreras continue to perform the way they have been, the Phillies will certainly have a formidable bullpen for the playoffs.
After all, guys like Baez and Romero simply won't be used in tight situations come October. For now, they are able to mop up innings, though Romero has had a tough time doing even that.
The Phillies could also be in the market for a left-handed reliever by the trade deadline, but that's another story for another day.
For now, the story is this: The Philadelphia bullpen has exceeded expectations this season. There will likely be a drop-off at some point, but those are the ebbs and flows of a Major League season.
For now, you mess with the Phillies' bull(pen), and you get the horns.