Bill Conlin: Amaro needs to force Manuel to change Phillies closer

Brad Lidge remains the Phillies' closer, despite an epic crash after last season's run of perfection.
Brad Lidge remains the Phillies' closer, despite an epic crash after last season's run of perfection.
Posted: August 27, 2009

TUESDAY NIGHT. Top of the ninth. Phils have just tied the Pirates, 3-3. Comcast SportsNet cuts to the bullpen, where Brad Lidge is lightly tossing next to Chan Ho Park.

"Oh, no," Irma says. "I'm going to bed."

Lidge has been putting a lot of lights out this season, mostly on nightstands. Irma Conlin's "Oh, no" was part of a swelling Greek chorus.

And after the bullpen hero of 2008, a man whose light illuminated a fan base imprisoned in a dungeon of October frustration, left a three-run mess on the mound of PNC Park, Charlie Manuel simply said, "No."

No, he is not going to take away the ninth-inning hammer from last season's closer, this season's closee.

You want to have a parent as loyal as the old baseball lifer is to his guys.

Charlie said, "Brad Lidge is the closer" during the blown saves of the early season and I was with him. Nobody could expect a righthander who depended on a straight but perfectly located fastball and two sliders - one feathered for a called strike, the other a filthy rumor to seal the deal - to maintain the excellence that produced one of the greatest-ever seasons of ninth-inning relief work. Charlie handed him the baseball 48 times in save situations last year, seven in the postseason, and his guy was dead-solid perfect 48 times, dropping to his knees after No. 48 sealed the Phillies' second World Series title, fronting a vast civic genuflection. If the joy he spread at that instant had been electricity, this tired old town would have lit the world.

And when it still wasn't better for Lidge at midseason and Charlie refused to entertain other options, saying there were none, I was with him. The rest of the East was a shambles of teams either too injured, too inexperienced or too untalented to take advantage of an unsettled Phillies bullpen that did its best work on a televised fraternity party called, "The Pen."

But the season is about to tuck under the elbow of September and there will be no Mets to slap silly after that. Brad Lidge has become a liability and Charlie Manuel is running out of time to fix the back end of his bullpen.

Yes, I agree with Mitch Williams that the last three outs of a baseball game, at least the way the modern pastime has divided itself into a beginning, middle and end, are a minefield that can't be negotiated by just any old relief pitcher. Whether you think it's an overstated urgency or not, Lidge has demonstrated he no longer has the pure stuff required for the job. And even if he is tipping his pitches, as some suggest, a tube-shot fastball waves a ticket to ride. Lidge made plenty of mistakes last year, but the action on his breaking ball and the late life on his fastball was as likely then to produce a swing and a miss as it is now to produce a line drive.

The numbers just don't lie . . .

The man whose body of 2008 work featured a 1.95 ERA with just 50 hits allowed and 92 strikeouts in 69 1/3innings pitched has careened 180 degrees to a 7.33 ERA, an 0-6 record with a staggering, MLB worst, nine blown saves and 56 hits allowed - 11 of them homers - in 46 2/3 innings pitched with a 28-48 walk to strikeout ratio. That's unacceptable for a closer.

All the fanny pats and "hang in theres" in the world can't disguise a glaring fact that for whatever reason, physical or mental, Brad Lidge has suffered a dramatic reversal in the quality of his pitches. You can hang all the buzzwords in the coachly lexicon on the meltdown, but the bottom line is the same: His pitches have not been good enough. Lack of stuff has shriveled his efficient strike zone. Hitters of low pedigree are driving his breaking ball - witness No. 8 hitter Luis Cruz, a backup shortstop, starting the Bucs' rally by ripping Lidge's second pitch for a single.

It also is fair to ask at this point: Why was it necessary for Manuel to use his closer for a fourth straight game against a team that came in 20 games under .500?

The real star of this Phillies season so far has been general manager Ruben Amaro, whose hot roll started when he swallowed the $8 million owed to Adam Eaton and dumped the dead-money righthander.

Ruben might be forced now to deal with the consequences of having a compound Eaton situation on his hands. There are a lot of folks confined to funny farms whose wildest fantasies are more realistic than the concept that the Phillies would approach the end of August a fat 21 games over .500. Despite No. 1 starter, double postseason MVP, "the next Carlton" lefthander Cole Hamels gasping along at 7-8 with a 4.52 ERA. Despite Lidge 0-6 with nine blown saves and the ZIP code of Austin, Texas (73301).

There is a time when a GM must save his manager from overplaying the loyalty card. One of Manuel's great strengths is his sense of even-handed justice and ability to maintain a level of fairness and consistency. At the same time, (the manager's favorite segue) there is an overriding obligation to the corporate goal. In this case, the business model is to win another pennant with what is possibly the best overall talent level ever achieved by a Phillies team.

It would be criminal neglect to place the hurt feelings of an individual ahead of the common goal. Jamie Moyer was unceremoniously tossed into the bullpen when Pedro Martinez was deemed ready to start. The Brett Myers crisis last season was resolved in dramatic fashion and with ultimately favorable results.

So it is time for Amaro to play the strong hand most good GMs are reluctant to play. He has to do an intervention. "Charlie, it's not working with Brad, and we have to work out a different way to go."

Bullpen by committee? Park has been brilliant since his new role was defined. I'm not convinced Ryan Madson, with the best pure stuff on the staff, is emotionally incapable of getting three ninth-inning outs. Myers riding to the rescue in his eye-popping Escalade? Give rehabbed and fire-dealing Scott Mathieson a September look?

But all those options and any others are for the baseball people to thrash out. It's why they make the big money.

Meanwhile, a 95-victory season would be a terrible thing to waste.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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