Lidge still key for Phillies

Brad Lidge says lately he's "felt about as healthy as I can feel."
Brad Lidge says lately he's "felt about as healthy as I can feel."
Posted: August 07, 2009

The moment Ben Francisco came out to pinch-hit for Cliff Lee, the ticking started in your head. The only question was whether it was the ticking of a time bomb.

Because the moment Lee was out of the game in the seventh inning, the ninth belonged to Brad Lidge. It is a testament to Lidge's imperfect season that this is now a source of anxiety for Phillies fans.

The man whose perfect 2008 included the final pitch of the World Series has been a bit of a cipher. Lidge blew six saves earlier this season, then went on the disabled list to rest his sore knee. Since he's been back from the DL, Lidge has converted all eight of his save opportunities.

So all is well, right? Not so fast. Yesterday's save opportunity was just the third for Lidge since the all-star break. When he has pitched in non-save situations, Lidge has been all over the place. The low point, he said, was an outing here against the Chicago Cubs on July 22: two earned runs allowed in two-thirds of an inning.

"I felt really out of control," Lidge said. "My body was spinning off, my head was off-line. I've worked real hard on that."

Lidge pitched a clean inning against Colorado on Tuesday, but he was working with an 8-3 deficit and was able to pump fastballs. It wasn't until he trotted out there to protect Lee's 3-1 lead (with a nice setup by Ryan Madson) that Lidge himself would get a feel for his status.

But for a Brad Hawpe single that barely eluded Chase Utley's grasp, Lidge looked very much like Lidge '08. He used a well-located 94-m.p.h. fastball to set up his infuriating slider.

"I felt like today he had a little more pop on the ball, and his slider was biting more," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He had more command."

There has been an awful lot of talk about the Phillies' starting rotation in recent weeks, and no wonder. They made the interesting decision to sign Pedro Martinez, then dominated the trade-deadline conversation by pursuing Roy Halladay before making the trade for Lee. When you include Chan Ho Park, who began the year in the rotation, the Phillies lead the majors in available starters.

Lee may not be as dominating as Halladay, but he has shown in just two starts that he is a winner who fits perfectly with this team's collective personality. A week after making the deal, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. looks even smarter - especially after announcing that J.A. Happ would stay in the rotation for the duration.

The suspicion here is that the six-man rotation talk is a smokescreen. The Phillies are right to be ultrasensitive in handling a situation that could lead to a reduced role for Jamie Moyer. But no matter how things shake out at the front end of games, the Phillies' chances of repeating still rely heavily on the guy at the back end.

Lidge said he "definitely" felt more like himself yesterday than he had at any other time this season.

"My last couple outings, I've felt about as healthy as I can feel," Lidge said. "It's taken a long time for me to get - I won't say 'locked in,' but just to get back to where I know where the ball is going 90 percent of the time, at least. My knee's not bothering me anymore. I'm looking forward to the last couple of months, not just for myself but for the team."

There was something very familiar and comforting about this win over a Rockies team battling for a playoff berth. This is how the Phillies played down the stretch last year: solid starting pitching, enough offense, and a bullpen that was otherworldly in its reliability.

With the trade deadline passed and Lee here, it feels like go time for these Phillies. They find themselves in a pretty good situation. They have a comfortable lead in the mediocre National League East. If they can pull away, they can focus on positioning themselves for the postseason.

A rotation of Lee, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, and Happ would match up with anybody in the NL. The offense is as explosive as any in baseball. The bullpen will continue getting pitchers back from the DL, which should allow everyone to return to comfortable roles.

The most important of those roles, of course, belongs to Lidge. There's no way to overstate the impact on a team's psyche when everyone believes in the closer the way the Phillies believed in Lidge last year.

"The way our starters are throwing the ball, it looks like I'll get a lot more [save] opportunities," Lidge said. "Hopefully, I can get on a good run."

If he does, that ticking sound may be the countdown to another grand October.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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