Paul Hagen: In Phillies' Lidge situation, just business as usual for Manuel

Charlie Manuel wasn't afraid to make a move with Brad Lidge.
Charlie Manuel wasn't afraid to make a move with Brad Lidge.
Posted: September 10, 2009

WASHINGTON - From the beginning, the tendency has been to reduce Charlie Manuel to cartoon stick figures. The funny-talking Southerner who shouldn't have been hired in the first place 5 years ago morphed into the dugout dummy whose smarts were openly ridiculed, then became the grandfatherly folk hero who had just the right touch with modern ballplayers when the Phillies started making the playoffs.

In recent weeks, the manager's image began to change again. As the team stumbled, an attribute that had been viewed as one of his strengths - loyalty to the players - began to be held against him.

This gripe focused on closer Brad Lidge. As his blown saves mounted, so did a steadily escalating chorus of complaints that Manuel was blindly following him down the rabbit hole and taking the entire season along with him.

The thing about caricatures, of course, is that they are to fully grasping an issue as Twitter is to a Don DeLillo novel. A quick hit, a bulletin, a 140-character fragment that is just as likely to mislead as it is to illuminate.

So, wrong again. In a stunning fall from grace, at least until further notice, the automatic (48-for-48) closer of 2008 will no longer automatically get the ball in save situations.

Sure enough, with the Phillies holding a 6-5 lead going into the ninth inning last night at Nationals Park, it was Ryan Madson - not Lidge - who started warming up in the bullpen.

And for the second straight game, it was Madson - not Lidge - who earned the save, pitching out of trouble but getting it done.

Manuel never has been as one-dimensional as he has been depicted. Anybody who has been paying attention would have understood a couple of things. That winning is paramount. And that he's not scared to do what he thinks is best to reach that goal.

Those who don't believe that must have skipped class last year when he benched reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins twice, once for not running out a pop fly and once for arriving late for a game. Or earlier this season, when he took sentimental favorite Jamie Moyer out of the rotation.

You could practically fill a lineup card with reasons why giving Lidge a loooong chance to right himself made sense, including but not limited to: They're a much better team if he can come close to pitching as he did last year; a comfortable lead in the division eliminated the need to panic; and, until Brett Myers came off the disabled list last week, there really wasn't an obvious alternative.

Still, it was never a question of whether Manuel would make the switch if necessary. It just wasn't. And now, it's happened.

There was no official announcement. The manager continued to talk about how important it is to get Lidge straightened out and to express confidence in him. But examine his words more closely and there's no doubt that a line has now been crossed.

(The contrast between a bunch of ball writers parsing every word of a manager's comments about his bullpen a couple of hours and a few blocks from the president of the United States making a major speech on health care is amusing, but, alas, will have to be the subject for another day.)

Anyway, here's what Manuel had to say:

"I'm getting kind of tired of it, to tell you the truth. Really. I am. And the reason is, because I figure I can put [Lidge] in the game when I want to. I've been very loyal to him, and I've stuck with him. I did everything possible to get him going."

And: "These are very important games, and I guess I'm going to pitch who I think on that night will do the job. When he gets in there and he gets consistent and everything, he can take that job right back. I look at him in the future as the closer for the Phillies. But right now, today,

we've got to try to win games."

And: "I definitely want to be loyal to him and things like that. At the same time, like I told him [Tuesday] night, the game is the first prerogative . . . Winning the game is the most important thing."

And: "If the best way to win the game includes Brad's not [being] out there to close, well, then I guess that's going to be my decision . . . Our team's definitely not about that one guy."

And: "Somehow, someway,

we've got to work around [Lidge's problems]."

And: "I look at Lidge and he's been our closer, and he's been very good. But he's had an off season, and we're at the place where we need to win some games. If we're going to win our division and [succeed] going into the playoffs, we need to win some games. I can see myself pitching some guys besides Brad [in save situations]."

And: "I'm not here to hurt confidence. I'm not here to hurt feelings. Nothing like that. But every time I talk - and you can go ask our players - one of the first things I say is, 'Don't forget about our first priority. And what is that? To win the game' . . . I'll bring anybody in. It don't matter. I don't care . . . Really, we're going to pitch whoever I think can win the game. And if anybody's got a problem with that, I can handle it. And if I can't, it's my fault."

There was plenty more, but you get the idea.

Or you could just look at the fact that Manuel lifted Lidge in the middle of a save situation Tuesday night when he appeared to be on the verge of blowing his 11th save opportunity of the season.

Probably the most telling part of the manager's raw, emotional outpouring was the line about Lidge being able to "take that job right back" if he becomes more consistent. You can't regain something you haven't lost, can you?

There will be those who view all this as some sort of seismic shift on Manuel's part. It isn't. As usual, he hasn't changed. Only the perception of others has. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com.

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