Paul Hagen: Lidge getting to be dependable again for Phillies

Brad Lidge is pumped up after his 1-2-3 ninth inning closed out win over Braves.
Brad Lidge is pumped up after his 1-2-3 ninth inning closed out win over Braves.
Posted: September 21, 2010

JUST PASSING out rally towels doesn't automatically create a playoff atmosphere, not even if the schedule has thoughtfully matched the top two teams in the National League East, with the season boiled down to a 2-week sprint, another sellout crowd and a full set of postseason implications ranging from winning it all to going home early still in play.

For all that, the mood down at the Sports Complex was a bit tepid for most of the evening last night. Maybe folks were still emotionally exhausted from the Phillies' stunning comeback against Washington Sunday, which concluded shortly after the Eagles hung on for dear life to beat the Lions. Maybe it's just because it was Monday. Maybe people around these parts just expect the Phillies to finish first.

Then, in the ninth inning, Brad Lidge was called on to preserve a 3-1 win over the Braves. With each out he recorded, the intensity increased. And when he struck out Derrek Lee swinging to end the game, padding the Phillies' lead to four games with 11 to play, the roar of approval from the packed blue seats was loud and heartfelt.

Afterward, though, not so much. Lidge's 1-2-3 save went unremarked upon in manager Charlie Manuel's postgame postmortem. Which, in a way, is a silent acknowledgment of just how far Lidge has come.

When he came in last night, there was a hum of anticipation. But it wasn't that long ago that his appearances created churning stomachs and palpable anxiety.

How soon we forget.

Through July 31, Lidge had a 5.57 earned run average and had blown four of 14 save opportunities. The next day, at Nationals Park in Washington, manager Charlie Manuel had this to say about his beleaguered closer:

"You know something? I look at that and I've got to give him a little rope. I've definitely got to show him that I'm willing to stay with him and we'll see what happens there. I think he understands. I think, right now, he definitely wants to prove he's that man and he can still do it and that he's good for our team and he can help us and he wants to keep his closer's role. I feel like we've definitely got to give him some time."

At the same time, he made it plain that he wasn't going to let any one player cost the Phillies a chance at a fourth straight division championship.

Since that series, Lidge has pitched in 20 games, has an 0.92 earned run average and has cashed in 13 of 14 save opportunities.

The point here isn't that we're all guilty at times of being a little too itchy to make changes for the sake of change, though, or that Manuel's faith seems to have paid off once again.

It's that it now seems possible to declare that Lidge is back. He's been good enough, long enough that it can't be dismissed as a mirage or a fluky hot streak. And it's almost impossible to overestimate how important that is.

Nobody expects him to be perfect like he was in 2008. Just that he inspires confidence that, when he comes into the game, it's as good as over. And the fact that it was no big deal last night when he retired the Braves in order is a pretty good indication that he's there.

Everybody accepts now that no team in baseball can match the Phillies' top three starters, and another dominant outing by Cole Hamels last night only validates that further.

The lineup, healthy with the exception of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, is starting to shake off its seasonlong doldrums. And for all their inconsistencies, they're still tied for second in baseball with 21 wins in their final at-bat.

The biggest question mark has been the bullpen, starting at the end. Lidge was terrible in 2009. He had knee and elbow surgery during the offseason. For the first 4 months of this year, he wasn't exactly dependable.

For 7 weeks now, he's been at the top of his game. Even a hyperextended elbow a couple weeks ago, which understandably set off alarms, proved to be a temporary detour.

The Phillies still have five games left with the Braves, a team that seems to have an edge in bullpen depth. Any game that turns into a marathon of swapping relievers, like chess masters sacrificing pawns, doesn't play to their strength.

That's why getting two unearned runs on a pair of Braves errors in the fifth last night changed the balance of the game. With the lead, Manuel didn't have to worry about being forced to pinch-hit for Hamels. As a bonus, he was able to give Chad Durbin and Ryan Madson each another day of rest.

And he had the confidence to bring in Lidge to nail down the win instead of trying to squeeze a final inning out of Hamels, who had thrown 117 pitches.

And Lidge, as he has done with the regularity of a metronome recently, got the job done. And the best measure of how dependable he's become is that it didn't seem like a big deal at all.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com

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