Inside the Phillies: Lidge remains an issue

2010: Which Brad Lidge will the Phils get if they reach the playoffs? This one, after a save in Florida on Thursday? Or the one who was dreadful in 2009, including the World Series?
2010: Which Brad Lidge will the Phils get if they reach the playoffs? This one, after a save in Florida on Thursday? Or the one who was dreadful in 2009, including the World Series?
Posted: August 08, 2010

Brad Lidge retired the side in order a week ago in Washington and again Wednesday night in South Florida. He finished off a sweep of the Marlins on Thursday and registered his eighth save in nine chances by getting the final out Friday against the Mets.

That was a good sign for the Phillies' pursuit of history, because history tells us that without an effective closer you don't have a snowball's chance in August of winning the World Series.

Lidge and the Phillies proved a year ago that you can reach the Fall Classic with an unreliable closer, but you can't finish the job without the right man to finish the job. So even as the Phillies try to survive the perpetual sequence of debilitating injuries that have dogged them since their home opener in April, the elephant in the room remains the man in charge of getting the final three outs.

Only four of the 38 teams to reach the World Series since 1990 did so with their regular-season saves leader converting fewer than 80 percent of his opportunities.

The short list: Cleveland's Jose Mesa at 76 percent (16 of 21) in 1997, St. Louis' Jason Isringhausen at 77 percent (33 of 43) in 2006, Colorado's Brian Fuentes at 74 percent (20 of 27) in 2007, and Lidge at 74 percent (31 of 42) in 2009.

Lidge, having converted 13 of 17 save opportunities through Friday, is at 76 percent.

Each man on the above list is an interesting story and perhaps a point of reference for Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee as they decide how to handle the Lidge situation during the final two months of the season.

Start with Mesa and the 1997 Indians. Two years earlier, Mesa had a magical season with the Indians, going 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA and converting 46 of 48 save opportunities. By 1997, however, he was not the same pitcher. He had converted only 16 of 21 save opportunities, and there was a stretch during the regular season when he relinquished the closer duties to Mike Jackson.

Sound familiar?

Indians manager Mike Hargrove, with Manuel looking on as the hitting instructor, opted to stick with Mesa as his closer in the postseason. The future Phillie blew three of seven save opportunities, including Game 7 of the World Series, when he surrendered a 2-1 ninth-inning lead against the Florida Marlins.

The postscript came five years later, when Omar Vizquel, the shortstop on the Indians' 1997 team, referred to Mesa as a Game 7 "choker" in his autobiography. Mesa's response: "If I face him 10 more times, I'll hit him 10 times. I want to kill him. If he comes to apologize, I will punch him right in the face. And I'll kill him."

Mesa, as it turned out, drilled Vizquel only the first two times he faced him, sparing himself homicide charges.

Lovely story, isn't it?

The tortured fans in Cleveland probably would have preferred a 1-2-3 ninth inning and a World Series title.

St. Louis' 2006 team is the only one in the last 20 years to win a World Series with a closer who converted fewer than 80 percent of his save opportunities.

How did they do it?

Manager Tony La Russa was forced to change closers. Jason Isringhausen had blown 10 of 43 save attempts through early September when a hip injury ended his season. That was just what the Cardinals needed. La Russa turned to Adam Wainwright, and the rookie picked up four saves while pitching 92/3 scoreless innings in the postseason.

A similar story played out for the Colorado Rockies in 2007.

Brian Fuentes converted 20 of his first 22 save opportunities, then suffered an arm injury and blew four straight at the end of June with each game resulting in a fall-from-ahead loss for Colorado.

Enter Manny Corpas, who converted 19 of 20 regular-season save opportunities and five more, including three against the Phillies, in the postseason.

We all know Lidge's story from last season. His 7.21 ERA was the worst for any closer who pitched in the World Series, and his one appearance in the Fall Classic against the Yankees was a disaster. Lidge is better this season.

Through 28 games last year, Lidge was 0-3 with a 7.27 ERA and had converted 13 of 19 save opportunities. This season, he is 1-1 with a 4.81 ERA and has converted 13 of 17 save opportunities. His fastball tops out at around 91 to 92 m.p.h. these days and his slider does not have the same bite it did two seasons ago, when he was the best closer in baseball. But he still has a closer's mentality. He still wants the baseball with the game on the line, and that's something that is not taught.

Manuel, of course, has tried Ryan Madson in the closer's role without success, and there does not appear to be a Wainwright or a Corpas on the Phillies' roster. Scott Mathieson, the closer at triple-A Lehigh Valley, throws harder than any pitcher in the organization, but he has accomplished nothing at the big-league level. Both Wainwright and Corpas had success in setup roles before becoming closers.

The best chance for a happy ending is for Lidge to string together some more scoreless appearances, because the closer and the manager need renewed confidence if the Phillies are going to become the first National League team in 66 years to make a third straight World Series appearance.

One more piece of history about Lidge: He is one of only two closers - the Yankees' Mariano Rivera is the other - in the last 30 years to reach the World Series twice with a save percentage of 90 percent or better. In addition to his perfect 2008 season, he converted 91 percent of his saves (42 of 46) as Houston's closer in 2005.

Yes, Brad Lidge is the Phillies' best option at closer.


Inside the Phillies:

Read The Inquirer's Phillies blog,

The Phillies Zone,

by Bob Brookover and Matt Gelb, at www.philly.com/phillies.

Blog response of the week

Subject: The Phillies' plans for Domonic Brown

Response from smel4727 Thursday at 12:32 p.m.:

"Let's take our time and see what happens. In his first start with the Phillies in 1992, [Ruben Amaro Jr.] went 3 for 4 with 2 doubles and a home run. Jeff Stone hit .362 in 185 at-bats for the Phils in 1984. Brown is young. He could be an all-star; he could be a bust. Too soon to tell."


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577

or bbrookover@phillynews.com.

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