The right place seemed to be Nationals Park, against baseball's worst team, with a two-run lead, plenty of rest and a nicked-up bullpen. After Brett Myers brilliantly bridged another stunningly solid start from Pedro Martinez, Lidge came on to face the eighth and ninth hitters of a team that already has 91 losses.
But even before Wil Nieves laced a single over Chase Utley's head, Ryan Madson was on the bullpen mound to resume the warmups he began the inning before, when Myers was on the mound. And when Lidge hit Willie Harris with one pitch, threw a wild pitch and subsequently walked Cristian Guzman to load the bases with one out, Madson went full throttle, Manuel ascended the dugout steps gingerly and, well, unwavering officially became wavering, with a season-pivotal wave of the manager's hand.
"When I say he's my closer, I don't tell lies and I don't like to go back on nothing,'' Manuel said after lifting Lidge in favor of Madson. "But the team and the game is bigger than my heart, and it's bigger than anything else, if you want to know the truth. Winning the game is what it's all about - that's baseball and that's why I manage and that's what comes first.''
Manuel walked slowly to the mound and took the ball from Lidge, who only hours before had asserted that he did not fret running out of chances because of "what Charlie has said to me."
"Charlie's got my back and I appreciate that," he said. "And of course it makes it easier for me."
Nothing is easy from here on. Madson struck out Ryan Zimmerman on three pitches, then retired Adam Dunn on a grounder after throwing two more strikes.
"He's got big talent," Manuel said of Madson, adding that with a fastball that tops 95 mph and that changeup in the 70s, "he can definitely be a closer."
There has been considerable debate about that, given Madson's failures early this season when Lidge was hurt. Lost in that conversation is that injuries had forced Madson to be overused even before he took on the role. Madson gave up some bombs, but his failures were not often due to lack of control.
So Manuel was asked about tonight, and tomorrow night and, well, the rest of September.
"I definitely am not going to get away from him," Manuel said of Lidge, but then he added this cryptic note:
"We're going to work with him. And we're going to get him back to where he can get consistent and go out there and save games . . . I'm not saying he'll close tomorrow or the next day."
But Manuel said he still saw Lidge "as a closer," and before the game said, "We're talking a real fine line." But there is an interpretive gap between the two men as to what exactly that means.
Likable in his toughest hour, Lidge was at his locker quickly after the game, saying things like, "My control wasn't there," "Madson did a great job picking me up," and finally, "Chuck's been awesome."
When he was asked if he was still the team's closer, Lidge answered, "Yeah, he said I was, so that's it."
That's not how it appeared at the end of the game. Or even in the manager's office afterward. Emotional and empathetic at the start, Manuel sounded more like a disgruntled boss the more he spoke of the man he has tried to nobly but futilely fix for the last 5 months - and the one he sent in to save what was shaping up to be the latest ugly loss of this touchy, thin line of a season.
"He showed me something tonight," Manuel said of Madson. "That's how you pitch when you come in the game bases loaded, one out, and their two best hitters standing up there. That's baseball. He takes his fastball, drops the changeup on both of them and the game's over. I like that."
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