"He's our closer," the manager said.
That confidence is about to be severely tested.
Since the perfect season in 2008 that ended with a world championship, Lidge has lost his edge - specifically the velocity on his fastball.
Ryan Zimmerman hit a 92-m.p.h. Lidge fastball to the deepest part of Nationals Park for a three-run home run to end Saturday's game. It spoiled a comeback by the Phillies that was capped with a two-out RBI single by Carlos Ruiz in the top of the ninth.
Immediately, Lidge didn't show conviction in his fastball as he began the ninth. He allowed a leadoff single to Michael Morse. Nyjer Morgan bunted Morse to second. Adam Kennedy walked on six pitches. With a 2-1 count, Zimmerman hit the fourth pitch he saw - a fastball without the zip Lidge used to have.
"This whole year I don't think I've thrown a whole lot of pitches above 93," Lidge said. "I'm a guy who in the past was throwing 95-96, so this year I'm learning to pitch with a little bit less on my fastball."
According to data from Baseball Info Solutions, Lidge's average fastball velocity in 2010 is 92.5 m.p.h. In 2009 it was 93.6 m.ph. In 2008, it was 94.3 m.p.h. And in 2007, it was 95.4 m.p.h.
Manuel was asked if he thinks Lidge, who had two offseason surgeries and spent the beginning of the season on the disabled list, is hurt. He didn't answer.
"I can only go by what they tell me," Manuel said. "I'm not a doctor."
He stood by his closer yet again.
"We've been working with him for two years," Manuel said. "Right now we have to keep continue working with him. He has his moments."
Why does he have to keep working with Lidge?
"That's what we've got," Manuel said. "We signed him three years ago to be our closer. The talent is there. We just have to . . . I don't know. We have to keep working with him."
Since 2008, Lidge has converted 41 of 56 save opportunities. This season, Lidge hasn't pitched a clean full inning in a save chance since June 4.
The problem lies with the fastball. Lidge is a two-pitch pitcher, but his slider is only at its best when the fastball is working, too. Without an effective fastball, he relies heavily on the slider. That allows opposing batters to lay off the pitch - or even guess slider because they know Lidge will keep throwing it. Eight of his 14 pitches Saturday were sliders.
His six fastballs averaged 91.8 m.p.h. against Washington.
"I'm healthy," Lidge said. "I don't feel hurt or nothing. To me, it's not something I'm going to make a big deal. It's something I need to pitch with."
Lidge ruined a comeback that overshadowed more problems from starter Joe Blanton, who turned in another ordinary start.
In the first inning, the Nationals singled five times against Blanton and scored three runs. He has allowed 15 earned runs in the first inning of his 17 starts.
Blanton, who signed a three-year, $24 million contract in the offseason, is the weakest link in a rotation that stands among the league's best with the addition of Roy Oswalt to the tandem of Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. Even Kyle Kendrick, who is the fifth starter on paper, has been better. In four of his last five starts he has allowed one run or fewer.
But that dynamic rotation could matter little if Lidge cannot close out tight games.
"He's had problems for two years," Manuel said.
That isn't enough for the manager to change his closer. At least not yet.
Contact staff writer Matt Gelb
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