Phillies pay the price for baffling mismanagement of Spencer Turnbull and the bullpen

Why did Spencer Turnbull pitch only one inning on Sunday?
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Spencer Turnbull
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Spencer Turnbull / Kevork Djansezian/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Phillies were tough luck losers in a 7-6 defeat at the hands of the Miami Marlins on Sunday afternoon. Off to a 3-0 start in the first inning thanks to a three-run shot off the bat of Nick Castellanos, it looked like the Phillies were on their way to an easy three-game sweep with Zack Wheeler set to take the mound. But things don't always go as planned.

Wheeler's uncharacteristic performance on Sunday was a complete disappointment, as the usually reliable ace lasted just four innings while allowing six runs on six hits and three walks while striking out two. With everyday catcher J.T. Realmuto unavailable due to knee soreness, Wheeler and backup catcher Garrett Stubbs never seemed to be on the same page.

When Wheeler walked off the mound after 80 pitches, the Phillies found themselves in a 6-3 deficit. It was clear the bullpen was going to have to steady the ship in this one.

Phillies pay the price for baffling mismanagement of Spencer Turnbull and the bullpen

Following Wheeler's quick exit, manager Rob Thomson gave rookie right-hander Orion Kerkering an opportunity to get quick outs on the mound. The youngster didn't disappoint. Kerkering was lights out, needing only seven pitches to get three outs, and improved his ERA to a remarkable 1.69.

Everything seemed to fall into place in the sixth when Thomson sent Spencer Turnbull to the mound in his second relief appearance since being placed in the bullpen last week. The plan for Turnbull's new role was expected to be as a multi-inning reliever capable of piggybacking the occasional short start from the back of the rotation or providing length with multiple innings in games similar to the series finale.

That's not exactly what went down on Sunday afternoon.

Turnbull was terrific in his lone inning of work, allowing one hit, striking out two, and not allowing a run. That coincided with the Phillies scoring three runs to tie the game in the top of the sixth. With Turnbull on the mound, it looked like the start of a new ballgame. Fully stretched out and boasting an impressive 1.53 ERA, it looked like the right time for Thomson to show off his newest bullpen weapon.

But when the Marlins came up to bat in the seventh, it was José Alvarado, not Turnbull, toeing the rubber. But why?

It's not like Alvarado didn't do a great job, he held down a weak Marlins offense in his lone inning of work. Matt Strahm followed with three strikeouts the following inning, and Jeff Hoffman kept the Marlins off the board in the ninth. Everything seemed to be working out for the Phillies until Gregory Soto took the mound in the 10th.

With a runner starting the inning at second base, Soto intentionally walked Josh Bell to get to Emmanuel Rivera. Rivera promptly hit a ball that took a wicked bounce off of Soto into right field, and the Marlins scored the game-winning run. This was a situation that was entirely preventable.

A multi-inning performance from Turnbull was a missed opportunity

The Phillies have been lucky to get some incredible starts from all five members of the starting rotation over the last month. As a result, some members of the bullpen haven't been tasked with coming in and doing the kind of work needed against the Marlins on Sunday. And from the way Thomson deployed the bullpen, it's not unreasonable to question why it had to play out like this.

What are the Phillies' expectations of Turnbull? A few weeks ago, debate was raging ahead of Taijuan Walker's return from the IL that Turnbull needed to stay in the rotation. That wasn't going to happen, especially with Turnbull's low innings totals due to injury over the last few seasons and the large chunk of change remaining on Walker's contract. But all indications were that Turnbull would eat some innings out of the bullpen — at least for a while.

That's why Sunday's loss is so frustrating. The Phillies were forced to patch things together after a rare poor start from Zack Wheeler, and they had the perfect guy for the job available to pitch multiple innings. With two innings of work from Turnbull, the possibility existed to turn it over to strong bullpen arms like Strahm, Hoffman, or Alvarado to shut things down if the Phillies managed a comeback.

This is the most recent example of what a lack of roles in a bullpen can do to a good team. A pattern had been beginning to emerge with Hoffman pitching the eighth and Alvarado closing out the ninth. It's a situation that has obviously worked, with Alvarado a perfect seven for seven in save opportunities.

But Sunday, Thomson got too cute with his bullpen and wasted an inning of Alvarado in the seventh. It was a decision that came back to doom the team when the frustratingly inconsistent Gregory Soto was asked to manage a high-leverage situation in the 10th. It didn't end well.

What difference would two or three innings of relief from Turnbull have offered the Phillies on Sunday? If that's his role going forward, it was a great chance to let him get some extended work. With four games against the New York Mets coming up this week, it seemed wasteful to deploy four of the best bullpen arms for one-inning stints with a series against a mediocre Mets team on the horizon.

Let's hope this frustrating loss was a teachable moment for Rob Thomson.