Lidge to close, Myers to start

Brad LidgeGiven a choice, the Phillies and Brett Myers would have preferred to keep the team’s 2007 Opening Day starter at the back end of the bullpen. It was there, all parties reasoned, that the big right-hander showed the most promise, and, more importantly, the most consistency.

That’s not to say Myers isn’t a good starting pitcher. Au contraire. One does not become the 12th player taken in the draft, get a call to the big leagues at age 21 and earn an Opening Day starting nod a few years before hitting free agency (had one not decided to sign a multi-year deal) by being bad. That’s not how it works in the Major Leagues.

Needless to say, Myers is quickly learning just how things work in the Major Leagues. Even though he believes he is better suited to be a closer, and the Phillies are on the same page, Myers is headed back to the rotation in 2008.

After all, the Phillies didn’t trade three players to the Houston Astros to get Brad Lidge to be a set-up man for Myers.

“I’m upset,” Myers revealed. “[I am] not [upset] with the Phillies because I understand the situation. I’m upset because I think I found myself and my role this year as a closer. I know because I’ve been told by people in the organization that I’m best suited to be a closer. I know because I’ve done both and I felt that I was better as a closer.”

Myers pitched as a starter for four full seasons where he made no fewer than 31 starts in every season. However, during those four seasons he only reached the 200-innings plateau once and began to struggle with his fitness. Statistically, it didn’t seem to affect his work on the mound. In 2005 Myers had a 3.72 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 215 innings and followed that up 3.91 ERA and 189 whiffs in 198 innings despite missing several starts following his arrest in Boston in June.

Still, something seemed to be missing. When Myers was on as a starter, he was as good as pitcher in baseball. The thing about that is there were some really poor outings mixed in there, too. Take, for instance, his two starts following his Opening Day gem in 2007. After holding the Braves to four hits and notching nine strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings, Myers gave up 13 runs in the next 7 2/3 innings covering two consecutive starts. The last of those two clunkers, one in which he gave up seven runs on three hits and five walks in 3 1/3 innings on April 13 against the Astros proved to be the dawn of a new career as a reliever.

Twenty-one saves and a 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio later, Myers finally was the steady performer the Phillies always knew he would be.

Brett Myers “I definitely like closing more,” Myers said. “I like having the ball in my hands four of five days. The only thing I don’t like in starting is I may go nuts those four days in between getting the ball.”

But now they want him to step aside and be a team player.

“It definitely helps our rotation greatly,” pitching coach Rich Dubee said. “Brett Myers is an extremely talented pitcher. We put him in a tough situation last year and he came through for us. I think he’ll be able to do it again. With the market the way it is out there, it seems like it was the best thing to do. With Brett in there behind Cole (Hamels) it gives us a stronger rotation.”

Myers agrees.

“I was bred, from the time I was born to win for the team,” he said. “I understand what’s going on and I understand that for this team, me going back to being a starter is the move to make. I know my role.”

Myers is looking at the move as a win-win for the Phillies.

“There are positives in this. I think I’ve proven myself as a closer and as a starter,” Myers said. “I can be ‘Slash,’ the next Kordell Stewart. If the time comes and I’m on the market as a free agent, instead of two teams needing a starter and two needing a closer I can make myself available as both to 30 teams. This doesn’t mean I’m unhappy in Philly. I love the team and I love the fans but from a personal standpoint this certainly can help me in the long run.”

Time for a change
Lidge Brad Lidge knows his role, too, and he’s very pleased about joining the Phillies to perform it. Lidge, it appears, is excited about getting the ever-popular “change of scenery” after spending the first six years of his career in Houston.

“I do sense it’s true. I don’t know if I can put a finger on exactly why,” Lidge said when asked if a change is what he needed. “I’m extremely excited to get to a team that’s going to be in a competitive atmosphere. It gets that extra adrenaline going. It fires me up to be out there in that atmosphere, and when I perform my best, that’s what’s happening. It’s going to be great for me to help bring out my best.”

Certainly Lidge’s departure from the Astros marks the end of an era for that franchise. In fact it was Lidge’s (a hard-throwing right-hander from Notre Dame) emergence during the 2003 season that forced the Astros to trade Billy Wagner to the Phillies before the 2004 season. Wagner’s ouster from Houston allowed the team to add Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to the rotation and sparked a run that ended with the seventh game of the NLCS in 2004, the World Series in 2005.

But after the 2005 season, things took a bit of a turn for Lidge. In ’06 his ERA ballooned to 5.28 and his control was off a bit. In ’07 the Astros moved Lidge out of the closer’s role early in the season, but he reclaimed it during the second half and went on to save a career-low 19 games. By the end of the year, Lidge says he had regained his old form despite the fact that he was headed to knee surgery on Oct. 1 to repair torn cartilage.

Needless to say, there still is some speculation as to why Lidge did fall out of sorts. One theory is that he was so rattled after giving up a two-out home run to Albert Pujols to blow a save in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS that he became a bit gun shy about walking that teetering edge of closing out games.

Lidge dismissed that idea.

“Initially, it was challenging because that’s why most people felt I wasn’t having success, even though I had to battle through a few other things,” Lidge explained. “Whether that was the case or not, I still believe a change of scenery is probably good for. I think Houston, in some ways, became a little stale.”

By Lidge’s explanation, his problems in 2006 and 2007 were multi-faceted. In 2005, he admits, he was a little spent from participating in the World Baseball Classic. Because he was pitching in those games, he says, his mechanics fell apart a bit because he had to be “100 percent sooner than [he] normally would.”

A reason for his troubles in 2007 was because he says he tried to add a cut-fastball to his repertoire of pitches. For some reason he was never able to master the pitch and wasn’t able to throw it for strikes when he needed to. But after a conversation with his ex-catcher Brad Ausmus, Lidge decided to junk the cutter and go back to just throwing his fastball and slider.

Lidge’s slider, Pujols once claimed, is one of the best pitches in the game.

Plus, Lidge says the torn cartilage in his right knee bothered him, too. Sometimes he could pitch without pain, but other times it got a little tricky, he says.

“It was a little different day-to-day. There were times where it was painful,” Lidge said. “It’s one of those deals where unfortunately it can be in the back of your head sometimes. I was really glad to have the surgery and put it behind me and move forward.”

Meanwhile, Lidge says his recovery from knee surgery is going well and like that cut-fastball, he should be able to get rid of his crutches at the end of this week.

“Right now, after having the surgery Oct. 1, I’m in the sixth and final week of using crutches. I am doing rehab right now,” he said. “As soon as I can walk, I’ll be able to do more extensive rehab and get my leg ready. Normally, I begin throwing the beginning of January, and I don’t expect it will affect anything at all.”

In the meantime, Lidge says he’s looking forward to getting ready to pitch in Philadelphia – a place where he was able to get familiar with the hometown fans when warming up in the double-decker bullpen close to Ashburn Alley.

“I knew as a visiting pitcher warming up out there in the bullpen, you’d better turn your ears off,” Lidge laughed. “Actually, I kind of like it that way.”

Good. It sounds like the transition from Houston to Philly will be rather smooth for Lidge.

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