Sixers stand with their closer

Iguodala There was a moment during the 2009 baseball season when the easy move for manager Charlie Manuel would have simply been for him to sit down Brad Lidge as his closer. In fact, it was set up perfectly for Manuel to pull the plug on Lidge after a late-September game in Miami where the closer gave up two runs on three hits and a walk to give one away.

But Manuel would not bail on his guy despite the 11 blown saves and an ERA closing in on 8. Why would he?

“These are our guys. We’ll stick with him,” Manuel said before a game in Milwaukee that year. “Lidge has to do it. Between him and [Ryan] Madson, they’ve got to get it done.  … We’ve just got to get better.”

Of course Manuel said he wasn’t going to depose Lidge as the closer even though he used him just four times over the final 11 games and pushed Madson into the two save chances the team had down the stretch. In other words, Lidge was the closer even though Madson was pitching the ninth inning. That’s what is called “managing” and Manuel had been around long enough to know that if he lost Lidge in late 2009, he might not ever get him back.

Apparently loyalty is a character flaw in the eyes of most sports fans.

Just look at how folks are up in arms about Sixers’ coach Doug Collins putting the ball in Andre Iguodala’s hands at the end of tight game. To steal some baseball jargon, Iguodala is the Sixers’ closer and in a tied game with the clock winding down, it’s up to him to get the team some points any way possible.

“The ball’s going to be in his hands,” Collins said after Sunday’s 114-111 overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Iguodala had the ball with seven seconds left in Sunday’s game and the Sixers trailing by two points. Viewed as the team’s best “playmaker,” this made perfect sense. Iguodala could penetrate, look for an open man, pull up for a jumper or drive to the hoop. It’s nothing new and since Allen Iverson left town, Iguodala has been the closer and succeeded at a better rate than the other A.I.

Actually, according to the advanced metrics that measure such things, Iguodala is 16th in the NBA since 2006 in “clutch” points, which account for performance with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime when neither team ahead by more than five points. Interestingly, Iguodala rated better than All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter.

This season Iguodala’s scoring average in clutch time has dipped nearly 20 points with Lou Williams leading the club with 28.4 points in clutch time. However, based on other advanced stats, Iguodala is still the man to have the ball when it’s on the line. A look at turnovers, shooting percentage and the inscrutable plus-minus, Collins is right to give the ball to Iguodala. Failing that, Elton Brand is the next-best option.

Reality and statistics seldom mesh, though[1]. That’s when perception takes over and often that does nothing more than unfairly marginalize a player. In this area, perception might as well be Iguodala’s middle name.

In some circles, Iguodala is a poor player because he has a “superstar salary” and not a superstar game. The reality is that notion is just plain stupid. Iguodala barely cracks the top 40 in the NBA in annual salary and isn’t even the highest paid player on the Sixers. Is he one of the top 40 players in the league? Yeah, probably. Is he the best player on the team?

Do we have to answer that?

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Trevor Hoffman finally closes it out

Hoffman Nearly four hours before a late September 2009 game at Miller Park, a guy in cargo shorts with his flipped around backwards was barreling over the banks of the parking lot adjacent to the TV trucks on a skateboard. No, it’s not unusual to see a kid out on a skateboard catching air over the contours of a veritable sea of macadam, but this wasn’t just some kid.

This was Trevor Hoffman riding his skateboard outside of the ballpark in Milwaukee.

Certainly it was no surprise seeing Hoffman, the all-time major league saves leader and certain Hall of Famer, in such an informal setting. After all, I recall bumping into him one morning at a Starbucks in St. Louis, and while out for a run around the Sports Complex before a game at The Vet. Still, a 41-year old tooling around on a skateboard is a rarity even before one considers that he has saved more ballgames in baseball history.

If there was ever a more grounded and regular dude than Hoffman who will one day go to the Hall of Fame, few people have seen him shredding on his skateboard outside of Miller Park hours before pitching a perfect ninth inning for his 590th save of his career.  

Hoffman was as real as they came, his former manager Bud Black told The New York Times.

“He can carry on a conversation with the owner of the club, and he can also talk with the clubhouse attendants and the ushers. He has such an ability to go across so many layers of people. In the simplest terms, he’s just an outstanding person.”

Ultimately, a person is measured not by numbers and records or silly awards, but by the way they treat others.

As Hoffman’s successor with the Padres Heath Bell told The New York Times:

“Usually with such great competitors, some guys are really cocky, some guys are all about the money or the fame, some guys don’t want any part of it, some guys are very shy. He wasn’t any of those things.” 


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Bedrosian finally gives way to Halladay

Shane_rawley On the last day of August in 1987, Phillies lefty Shane Rawley pitched 8 1/3 innings at Dodger Stadium to improve to 17-6 for the season as his ERA dipped to 3.70. It was the third game in a row that Rawley pitched at least eight innings and it came five days after he got 10 strikeouts and allowed two runs in a complete-game loss.

The truth was Rawley looked very much like the Cy Young Award winner in the National League.

And why not? To that point in the season, Rawley very well might have been the most consistent pitcher in the league. After all, he had lost just twice going back to the middle of June and went 9-1 through July and August with a solid 3.50 ERA. In fact, Rawley even went on Roy Firestone’s interview show, Up Close, for ESPN during the trip to Los Angeles where it was agreed upon that the Cy Young Award was his to lose.

That’s exactly what happened.

Whether it was a curse or an injury or whatever, Rawley didn’t win a game for the rest of the season, going 0-5 in his final seven starts with a 7.82 ERA. Worse, Rawley struck out just 22 and walked 21 over those final seven starts. Four times he didn’t make it past the fifth inning and twice he barely made it into the second frame, including one start where he was pulled after giving up eight runs and four hits in the first inning.

But by that point the Cy Young Award had already escaped Rawley. Seemingly, so too did his career as the left-hander pitched two more seasons, winning just 13 more games.

“The last month of the season I pushed myself,” said Rawley, who these days owns Shaner’s Sports Bar and Pizzeria in Sarasota, Fla. “We started to sputter as a team the last month and I probably tried too hard. I tried too hard to get it.”

As a result, the 1987 Cy Young Award was up for grabs. That’s not at all like it is this year where Roy Halladay won his second Cy Young Award by collecting all 32 first-place votes. On the next-to-last day of August in 2010, Halladay pitched seven innings to fall to 16-10 for the season as his ERA rose to 2.27. The difference between Halladay and Rawley is that this time a Phillies pitcher finished the deal by going 5-0 with 29 strikeouts and four walks in 36 2/3 innings.

Halladay’s Cy Young will be the first by a Phillies pitcher since 1987 when Rawley let it slip away. Instead of the Phillies’ lefty starter taking home the most prized award in pitching, a right-hander reliever got it with the fewest amount of wins in the closest ever voting.

Yes, at 5-3 with 40 saves and a 2.83 ERA in 89 innings, Steve Bedrosian will have the phrase, “Cy Young Award winner” tied to his name. Better yet, Bedrosian capped off a run from 1980 to 1987 where Steve Carlton, John Denny and Bedrock won the award four times.

So how to Bedrosian do it while Rawley could not? Or how come it has taken so long for another Phillie to win it? Moreover, how has winning the Cy Young Award affected Bedrosian’s life now that he has been out of the game for 15 years?

Better yet, how was the zany reliever able to keep his stirrup socks in perfect position every time he took the mound?

Steady as he goes
To start, Bedrosian won it in 1987 because of his uncanny consistency. After all, Rawley was second in the league in wins, finishing just one behind Rick Sutcliffe, who went 18-10 with a 3.68 ERA for the last-place Cubs. In the final voting, Bedrosian slipped past Sutcliffe, 57-55, while Rick Reuschel finished with 54 points finishing third.

Bedrosian probably won it because the BBWAA voters could not give it to Nolan Ryan. Though Ryan led the league in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270 in 211 innings), he went 8-16 as a 40-year old for the Astros.

Did Bedrosian win it by default because there were no other standout pitchers in the league? Shoot, he very well might have put together better seasons in 1982 and 1984 with the Braves relying on a hard fastball. Later he was a key pick up for the Giants during their run to the World Series in 1989 and a solid bullpen piece for the World Champion Twins in 1991. In fact, Bedrosian was on the mound for the Giants when they closed out the NLCS in five games against the Cubs in ’89. Considering that the Phillies were 22-40 when they traded him for Terry Mulholland on June 16 of that season, the deal worked out pretty well for Bedrosian.

Everything went pretty well in 1987, too. Sure, some of the stats types have written off Bedrosian’s victory in ’87 as the worst Cy Young Award winner ever, but that’s missing the point. Though the rapidly aging Phillies won 80 games that year, Bedrosian saved exactly half of them. During one stretch he saved a game in 13 straight appearances and, taking away a blown save that turned into a win, Bedrosian went through a 20-game stretch where he saved 19 games and won one.

Back then it seemed as if Bedrosian only went into games where he was in line for a save, and there very well might have been something to that. According to a Sports Illustrated  story from the summer of ’87, there were reports that during the saves streak Bedrosian had twice refused to pitch in blowouts to preserve his shot at the record. That wasn’t exactly the case, according to Peter Gammons:

Bedrosian

But in fact, manager Lee Elia had called the bullpen to ask Bedrosian if he wanted an inning's work because he hadn't pitched in a few days. Bedrosian said no thanks. “I felt I was pretty much in sync even without having pitched,” he says. “And my job is as a stopper. But heck, I'll pitch anytime.”

Closing time
Besides, that was a different time. Unlike when Brad Lidge went 41-for-41 in save opportunities, he never pitched more than three outs in any of his 65 games. However, of his 40 saves in ’87, Bedrosian got 22 saves of more than an inning and 15 when he pitched at least two innings. The way it worked for manager Lee Elia was for the Phillies to get the lead by the seventh inning before turning it over to his closer.

Tally it up and Bedrosian went 54 2/3 innings for his 40 saves with a 0.66 ERA in those chances. He also racked up 68 2/3 innings in his 48 save chances that season, holding opponents to a .238 batting average. By contrast, Lidge posted a 1.10 ERA in 41 innings in his 41 saves in 2008.

No, efficiency wasn’t the style in the 1980s. With 89 innings that season, Bedrosian wasn’t even the hardest worked reliever on the staff. Even though the Phillies had four starters pitch from 200 to 229 innings, Kent Tekulve appeared in 90 games for 105 innings. Up-and-comer Mike Jackson went 109 innings in 55 games—not the way they break in 22-year olds these days. Meanwhile, Tom Hume piled on 70 innings in 38 appearances before being released in August, weeks before Rawley tanked.

It worked out for Bedrosian, though. Actually, an All-Star appearance where he memorably tagged out Dave Winfield at the plate in a wild, 3-6-1 double play to keep the game scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, earned Bedrosian a $25,000 bonus. He also got and $100,000 for winning the Rolaids award as the league's No. 1 relief pitcher as well as another $100,000 for the Cy Young. When put on top of his $825,000 salary, Bedrosian got $1,050,000 in 1987 to become the 59th player to earn over $1 million in a season.

He didn’t act like a millionaire in the clubhouse, though. In addition to solid pitching, Bedrosian continued the legacy of oddball Phillies relievers that started with Tug McGraw and was passed down to the likes of Larry Andersen, Roger McDowell, Mitch Williams, Ricky Bottalico and Ryan Madson. He also was a fan of the Three Stooges and was said to have the ability to recite episodes of the show by heart. Still, with 103 saves for the Phillies Bedrosian was the franchise leader until Jose Mesa passed him in 2003, but he likely will hang on to the No. 2 spot until Lidge surges past in 2011.

These days Bedrosian is somewhat affiliated with baseball. As the supervisor of the school board in Coweta County, Georgia, Bedrosian doubles as the assistant coach for the East Coweta High baseball team. That’s the team his son Cameron pitched for before he was the 29th overall pick in the 2010 draft for the Angels.

Interestingly, just as Bedrosian was winding down his career in the big leagues, Cameron’s older brother Cody was diagnosed with leukemia. According to a story in Baseball America, Cody, then just 6, needed a bone-marrow transplant when it was discovered his two-year-old younger brother was a perfect match. Because of this, Cody is cancer free more than 17 years later and Cameron finished his first pro season.

In other words, it’s just fine by Bedrosian if he is finally replaced as “the last Phillies pitcher to win the Cy Young Award” now that Halladay has arrived. Actually, it’s about time.

Bed rockKeep on closing
Having a long-term, consistent closer is not something the Phillies are known for. In fact, with 103 saves for the franchise in a little more than three seasons, Steve Bedrosian was the franchise leader from 1989 to 2003 when Jose Mesa took the all-time leadership. If Brad Lidge, with 99 saves, can produce a solid 2011 season, he not only will pass Mitch Williams, Bedrosian and Mesa, but also could be the first Phillies’ closer to hold onto the job for four seasons.

1970 – Dick Selma (22 saves)
1971 – Joe Hoerner (9 saves)
1972 – Mac Scarce (4 saves)
1973 – Mac Scarce (12 saves)
1974 – Eddie Watt (6 saves)
1975 – Garber/McGraw (14 saves)
1976 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
1977 – Gene Garber (19 saves)
1978 – Ron Reed (17 saves)
1979 – Tug McGraw (16 saves)
1980 – Tug McGraw (20 saves)
1981 – Tug McGraw (10 saves)
1982 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
1983 – Al Holland (25 saves)
1984 – Al Holland (29 saves)
1985 – Kent Tekulve (14 saves)
1986 – Steve Bedrosian (29 saves)
1987 – Steve Bedrosian (40 saves)
1988 – Steve Bedrosian (28 saves)
1989 – Roger McDowell (19 saves)
1990 – Roger McDowell (22 saves)
1991 – Mitch Williams (30 saves)
1992 – Mitch Williams (29 saves)
1993 – Mitch Williams (43 saves)
1994 – Doug Jones (27 saves)
1995 – Heathcliff Slocumb (32 saves)
1996 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
1997 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
1998 – Mark Leiter (23 saves)
1999 – Wayne Gomes (19 saves)
2000 – Jeff Brantley (23 saves)
2001 – Jose Mesa (42 saves)
2002 – Jose Mesa (45 saves)
2003 – Jose Mesa (23 saves)
2004 – Billy Wagner (21 saves)
2005 – Billy Wagner (38 saves)
2006 – Tom Gordon (34 saves)
2007 – Brett Myers (21 saves)
2008 – Brad Lidge (41 saves)
2009 – Brad Lidge (31 saves)
2010 – Brad Lidge (27 saves)

Scott Eyre is living the good life

Eyre When talk first surfaced about the prospect of Scott Eyre making a mid-season comeback—talk that was nothing more than hot air—the over/under was set at 30…

As in the amount of pounds he gained since “retiring” after Game 6 of last season’s World Series.

But when Eyre showed up at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday afternoon, presumably to warm up before throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS, all he could do was laugh at the little joke about his presumed fitness (or lack thereof) and his penchant for having fun. However, it turns out that “real life” is far more taxing than the life of a Major League Baseball pitcher and Eyre will go to the mound on Wednesday for his pitch a good 10 pounds lighter than he was when he last wore the Phillies uniform.

“For a while I couldn’t keep weight on,” he said with a laugh and a smile. “I’m always busy now. There’s always something to do. When I was pitching I was sitting around and eating three times a day because I was bored. If I got into a rhythm or got into a role, I went with it. ‘Hey, what did I do yesterday?’ Oh, I just sat here. I guess I’ll do that again.”

Though his waistline has diminished, his quick laugh, wide smile and zeal for… everything, has not. Retirement at age 38 has been good to Scott Eyre. Hell, life in general has been good to Scott Eyre. Drafted in the ninth round after a solid (but not earth-shattering) career at Cyprus High, a brisk jog from the Great Salt Lake, and the College of Southern Idaho, Eyre turned his left-handedness and his ability to get quick outs into an 18-year pro baseball career that lasted 13 seasons in the big leagues and got him into the World Series three times.

Nope, Eyre isn’t waiting for the phone call from the Hall of Fame or, frankly, a call from anyone. But when MLB.tv called asking him to provide some commentary, he took the call. The same goes for an RV trip over the next 60 days or when his pal Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine sent him an autographed guitar to give as a gift to his buddy, Brad Lidge. Eyre was ready for those calls.

But the one that made him dash north to Philadelphia wasn’t one asking him to pitch, per se. It was the call asking Eyre to throw the ceremonial first pitch before the first game of the 2010 playoff chase that seems to have gotten Eyre the most excited.

“I was here a year and two months and now I’m back throwing the first pitch,” he said with an unbelieving shake of his head. “What did I do to deserve to come here and throw out the first pitch?”

Well, where do we start?

See, Eyre isn’t too different from the hardcore baseball fans sitting in the stands with a beer and a dog while rooting for the Phillies. So it seems as if Eyre is living the life that everyone blessed with a certain extraordinary skill would live if given the chance to collect a big league paycheck before taking on the vested pension. Oh sure, he could have pitched another season, but when Phils’ general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. downplayed Eyre’s promise that he would pitch for the Phillies or retire, the lefty had to climb into the cab of his RV and drive into the sunset.

Still, there was that itch to play. Eyre had surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow during the winter and then spent the off-season pitching more bullpen sessions than in any off-season he can remember.

However, when it came down to it, the pitcher was happy at home and his wife, Laura, and his two sons, Caleb and Jacob, were happy to have him home, too.

Yes, retired at age 38.

“I don’t know how close it was,” Eyre said about coming back in 2010. “You know what the funniest question I’ve gotten is? It’s not, do you miss it, it’s when they look at my wife and say, ‘What’s it like having him back home every day. Do you like it?’ We’re happily married. She tells them that she loves having me home every day and it’s true.

“The transition was smooth, it wasn’t easy. Because in here I still wanted to play,” he said, tapping on his heart. “But in my head I was OK. I was home, I was a dad, I was taking the kids to the bus stop every morning. But in here [tapping his heart again], I just wasn’t ready.

“Phillies or nowhere else. I shouldn’t have said it out loud.”

Then again he probably didn’t have to. The 2009 season was a tough one for Eyre off the field. Aside from the elbow full of bone chips, he also pulled his calf badly during a game in New York. Then there as the incident where his assets were frozen because of an investigation into the Stanford Financial fraud case. The Phillies had to front him a couple of bucks so he could get by until the issue was straightened out.

Yet when Eyre pitched, he pitched well. A 2-1 record and 1.50 ERA in 42 games for a lefty specialist is exceptional. Mix in two runs over 12 playoff outings during two Octobers with the Phillies and Eyre went out on top.

Now he gets one more pitch.

“I thought [they were calling to ask for me] to walk it to the mound and give it to some deserving person,” Eyre said before turning excited. “What if I bounce it! What if I throw it over his head! Crap, what if I trip on the way out there! If I throw it hard they’re going to get excited, and if I lob it they’re going to boo me.”

Eyre1No, don’t expect Eyre to get booed. It’s kind of tough to boo the everyman laughing and smiling his way through life. Call him a Philly guy by way Utah, Idaho, the White Sox, Giants, Blue Jays and Cubs before he landed with the Phillies for the last year and two months of his career.

Eyre was guy who got it the second he arrived and picked up a win after facing just one hitter in his Phillies’ debut.

“Philadelphia was not a fun place to come play as a visitor. But when I got here and got a one-pitch win in my first game—I threw a bad fastball, got a popup and a win—the next day at the Residence Inn in Deptford, someone came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you the new guy who threw one pitch and got a win?’ I got treated so nice for just doing my job. I got a left-hander out here or there and did whatever Charlie asked,” Eyre said.

Maybe that was the thing? Eyre liked to see himself as a guy doing a job instead of a “big leaguer.” He was one of those guys that slipped in and out of any clique simply because he liked to get to know people. Just a guy doing a job, he reasoned. There was no reason to get too excited over that.

“See, to me I don’t look at it like that. The other day my dog had surgery for a dislocated hip and after I left and came back the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t know who you were. I looked it up and saw your stats and you were pretty good,’” Eyre said. “I told him he wasn’t supposed to know who I was. I appreciate it, but I always took it as this is a job and it’s what I do, but I’m still a fan. I’m a big kid when it comes to this stuff. I still get excited when I see some players. I felt like I did a good job and I got to three World Series. I pitched good in the World Series—I was good in the playoffs—but I just like keeping myself as a normal person.”

Eyre told a story about a time on his summer RV trip where he and the family took 10 weeks to drive all over the country and just blended in. That was even the case when he befriended people.

“I used to tell everyone. ‘Hey, I’m a big leaguer!’ But now I don’t tell anyone,” he said. “I want to get to know people for who they are. We met a couple—a family—on an RV trip and we spent three days with them and they didn’t know I played baseball until the last day when we were leaving. My kids were wearing t-shirts everyday and they have so many that the guy finally said, ‘Are you guys Phillies fans,’ and my oldest son said, ‘Well, my dad played.’ So yeah, there you go. Thirteen years.

“How do you think I retired and bought [an RV]?”

He’s just a regular old dude traveling in a big RV and wearing an inscribed Rolex that was a gift from Brad Lidge after the 2008 season. A guy who gets excited telling a story about his kids getting to shake hands with Jim Thome and can’t wait to pitch batting practice to the kid’s little league team.

A guy who gets to live the good life with nothing but time.

“Why me? I know why,” Eyre said, genuinely befuddled by his good fortune. “For me, for what my job was in the big leagues, to have people still say, ‘Oh man, we needed you,’ that’s the most flattering thing I’ve ever been told. To still be wanted, but not necessarily needed, is so unbelievably flattering.”

Almost as much as being asked to throw out the first pitch before a playoff game. Yes, it’s tough not to like the guy living the good life and recognizing just how lucky he is.

“Most people inquire and ask what’s a 38-year old doing retired and traveling around in an RV,” he said. “I tell them I’m retired. That’s it.”

It’s a clincher! Looking back at party time for the Phillies

Clinch 09 Baring a collapse of New York Mets proportions, the Phillies will clinch the NL East for the fourth season in a row. This will likely go down as early as Saturday and as late as next Monday or Tuesday in Washington.

Nevertheless, we are riding on unchartered waters here in Philadelphia. The Phillies have never been in the playoffs for four straight seasons, nor had Connie Mack’s Athletics ever been to the postseason in four straight seasons. For the A’s, they had to move twice before pulling off such a stunt.

Now here’s the crazy part… since the Phillies won the NL East in 1993, only the Braves and the Mets have won the division. In other words, the NL East resembles the NBA Finals during the 1980s when only the Celtics, Sixers, Rockets and Lakers ever got there. Eventually the Pistons and Bulls broke through, but for a long time it seemed as if only a handful of teams ever made it to the big dance.

But like a team that has been there before, the Phillies aren’t getting too worked up over their fourth straight title. At least not yet. In fact, last season the Phillies seemed a little unnerved about going into Miller Park in Milwaukee to find protective plastic sheeting above the lockers ready to be pulled down like a cheap shade.

It never happened. By the end of the series in Milwaukee, the plastic was gone from the clubhouse and packed into a storage closet somewhere in the bowels of the ballpark.

Nevertheless, if the Phillies can get it done on Saturday with a win over the Mets coupled with a loss by the Braves, it will go down as the earliest clincher in terms of games played in team history. To capture their first playoff berth in 26 years in 1976, the Phillies wrapped up the East in Game 155 and their 95th win.

As it stands, the Phillies are 93-61 heading into Game 155 this season.

Meanwhile, if the Phillies clinch before Sunday, it will be the earliest the team ensured a playoff berth ever. Even in 1950, before the advent of divisional play, the Phillies needed the full slate of games to get to the postseason.

Anyway, here’s a look at the playoff-clinching games since Major League Baseball started divisional play.

 ***

Lidge 2009

Game 158 vs. Houston at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 30)

Box score

This should have gone down in Milwaukee, but the job got done just as well. Nevertheless, the clincher in a 10-3 rout over the Astros was all but over in the fourth inning when Pedro Feliz cleared the bases with a two-run, one-out double off of Brian Moehler. From there, the Phillies piled on with back-to-back triples in the fifth inning from Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, a triple in the sixth from Chooch Ruiz, and a two-run bomb in the seventh by Raul Ibanez.

However, the best parts about this one was that Pedro Martinez started the game and ran onto the field after the third out, bouncing like a kid with his arms raised in the air.

Apropos of nothing, how much fun would the 2010 team be with Pedro as the teams’ fifth starter?

The best part was when Charlie Manuel waved in Brad Lidge with two outs in the ninth inning. It was a classy move by Manuel for a classy ballplayer like Lidge. Moreover, Lidge has been on the mound to throw the last pitch in seven straight clinching games… a streak that still lives on.

 ***

2008
Game 161 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 27)

Box score

Remember this one? Remember how you felt when Brad Lidge loaded the bases with one out and the go-ahead runs in scoring position and how the shot by Ryan Zimmerman looked like it was going to ruin the closer’s perfect slate?

Aside from Jimmy Rollins’ heroic diving stop to spin the game-ending double play, this one is remembered for Jamie Moyer’s second straight win in a clinching game. Aside from his effort in Game 3 of the World Series, the finales in 2007 and 2008 will be the old lefty’s legacy with the Phillies.

 ***

2007
Game 162 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 30)

Box score

The fact that the Phillies were even in a position to win the East took an unprecedented collapse by the Mets. Couple the huge comeback (down 6½ games with 17 to go) with a 14-year playoff drought, and the clubhouse scene was one of the all-time great parties in the history of Philadelphia clinchers.

The truth is a lot of us never saw such a thing. Champagne corks popping and flying all over the room. Beer spray dousing everyone and anything that moves. Pharmaceuticals and English bulldogs show up and drag low-end celebrities and political chaff around, too.

In other words, it’s no different than the parties you threw in college only without the bonfire. Where this party had it over those from back in the college days is that Jade McCarthy and J.D. Durbin made it to this one, and, well… when Jade and J.D. show up then it’s a party.

Of course by the time the fog cleared and the playoffs began, the Phillies were gone in four days.

 ***

1993
Game 157 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 28)

Box score

Get a load of this… I watched this one from the balcony at the Troc at a Fugazi show. Some guy sitting in front of me had a Sony watchman TV and we got to see Mariano Duncan crush the game-winning grand slam before the band took the stage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Commonwealth, Harry Kalas was singing High Hopes after the Phils finally wrapped it up. But since this was the Macho Row era of club, the party didn’t end with the sing-a-long. Oh no. Check out the box score for the day after the clincher and check who IS NOT in the lineup.

That oughta tell you how long into the night this one went.

 ***

Al 1983
Game 160 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 28)

Box score

Who would have guessed that there would have been just one more clincher for the Phillies in the next 24 years after this one? Sheesh.

Regardless, this one was in the days before there were lights at Wrigley Field so it’s likely that Larry Andersen took the guys over to The Lodge after the clubhouse celebration ended.

Here’s what I remember from this one – Mike Schmidt hit his 40th homer of the season and Bo Diaz clubbed two of them all off ex-Phillie Dick Ruthven. The last out was caught by Greg Gross in left field with Al “Mr. T” Holland on the mound. I guess Holland looked like Mr. T to get a nickname like that. Seemed like a fun guy.

 ***

1981
Won first half

This was the strike year so by virtue of being in first place by the time the work stoppage occurred, the Phillies went to the first-ever NLDS. They lost in five games to the Expos, though St. Louis had the best overall record in the NL East.

***

1980
Game 161 vs. 
Montreal at Olympic Stadium (Oct. 4)

Box score

If we were ranking the best regular-season games in Phillies history, this one would have to be in the top three. Maybe even the top two. Frankly, it had everything. Comebacks, drama, suspense, crazy manager moves and then Mike Schmidt’s home run in the 11th to give the Phillies the lead they never gave up.

Oh, but if Schmidt’s homer were the only highlight.

  • Bob Boone laced a two-out single in the top of the 9th to tie the game and force extra innings.
  • Tug McGraw pitched the last three innings allowing just one hit to go with four strikeouts to get the win.
  • September call up Don McCormack came in to catch in just his second big league inning in the ninth when Dallas Green yanked Boone for a pinch runner. McCormack got the first of his two Major League hits after Schmidt’s homer in the 11th. From there, McCormack went on to play in just 14 big league innings the rest of his career over three game.

How the hell did Don McCormack get into that game?!

  • The top four hitters in the Phillies lineup (Rose, McBride, Schmidt, Luzinski) went 11-for-19.

 ***

Lerch 1978
Game 161 vs. 
Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 30)

Box score

Here was the scenario for this one – if the Pirates won, then Game 162 would decide the NL East. Instead, the Phillies wrapped up division title No. 3 thanks to a clutch three-run homer from Greg Luzinski in the sixth inning.

The game started rather inauspiciously, too. Willie Stargell hit a grand slam in the first inning to give the Pirates the quick lead, but pitcher Randy Lerch made up for his pitching with a homer in the second and another in the fourth to cut the deficit to a run and set the table for Luzinski’s homer.

The game was not without drama at the end, either. Tug McGraw game on in the seventh and was within two outs of closing it out until the Pirates rallied for four runs and had the tying run at the plate when manager Danny Ozark went to Ron Reed to get the last outs.

 ***

1977
Game 157 vs. 
Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 27)

Box score

I don’t remember this one, but from a look at the box score it looks like one of those old fashioned Wrigley Field games that used to be unique. Now those Wrigley Field games can break out anywhere in any ballpark. And since they play mostly night games at Wrigley these days, those wild games are a thing of the past.

Still, the second clincher for the Phillies featured five RBIs and a homer (and seven solid innings for the win) from Larry Christenson and a homer from Mike Schmidt in a 15-9 final.

***

1976
Game 155 
vs. Montreal at Parc Jarry (Sept. 26)

Box score

The was the first and maybe the best of the Phillies clubs that won all those division titles. The Phils won a franchise-record 101 games, but they didn’t quite match up well enough against The Big Red Machine, who were on their were to becoming the last National League team to win back-to-back World Series titles.

Anyway, this clincher was the first game of a doubleheader, highlighted by a complete game from Jim Lonborg. So needless to say the nightcap had a slightly different lineup after the Phillies wrapped up their first playoff berth since 1950. In fact, John Vukovich started in the second game for his season debut. Vuke went on to start in 13 more games over five years for the Phillies – all but three came in 1980.

So there it is… looking forward to adding the new one at the top of this list over the weekend. The good part is the Phillies are old veterans at this and Charlie Manuel promised to make sure the scribes covering the team would be brought champagne.

Health and confidence have brought Brad Lidge back

Brad Crank up the time machine for a moment and contemplate this scenario for a moment:

Let’s say it’s 2009 again and the Phillies are headed to the World Series to play the Yankees. Rather than make things too complicated, let’s just say everything has remained the same. Instead of Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, the Phillies still have Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. Otherwise, everything else is the same except for Pedro Feliz is the third baseman and Placido Polanco still is in Detroit.

Not imagine if the Phillies went against the Yankees with Cole Hamels and his new-found focus and maturation and Brad Lidge with his current Zen-like feeling of healthiness and effectiveness.

If we could put the 2010 version of Hamels and Lidge in the time machine and go back to last year’s World Series, does anyone think the Yankees still win? Does anyone think it lasts six games?

This little exercise is just for us, though. After all ballplayers don’t think about time machines or what could have been. In Major League Baseball, a player is only as good as his last swing or his last pitch. In other words, there’s no sense worrying about what happened in 2009 when a ballclub as good as the Phillies is tearing through the NL East in 2010.

Living in the now, as they say, Lidge paused ever-so slightly to ponder the idea of transporting his current pitching ability to last October. That’s what polite people do even when they are trying to be diplomatic. However, based on how well Hamels and Lidge performed during the 3-1 victory over the Braves in the first game of the September showdown between the NL East frontrunners, the Phillies’ chances look pretty good going forward.

“I don’t know if I would say I’m different,” Lidge answered when asked the difference between last September and this September. “I would say I’m healthy and because I’m healthy, my control is better. Because my control is better, my confidence is better.”

And because Lidge has that confidence the 2010 Phillies just might be the best team Lidge has ever pitched for.

“If I played on a better team than this I don’t know who it would be,” he said. “In a roundabout way I guess I’d say this is as good a team as I have ever been on.”

Lidge has played a pretty significant part in the team’s success, too. Interestingly, it seems as if he has quietly slipped out of the spotlight, too. Last year, on the heels of his epic, 48-for-48 saves season which culminated with the closer dropping to his knees on the grass in front of the pitchers’ mound after dusting Eric Hinske with a light-s out slider, Lidge went the other way in 2009. In fact, if there were two seasons more diametrically opposed that Lidge’s first two seasons with the Phillies by any other player in baseball history, then report that guy to the circus.

In 2009 Lidge had the worst season in baseball history by a pitcher who recorded at least 20 saves. In that regard, the thoughtful righty notched 31 saves in 42 chances to go with a 7.21 ERA. He also led the league in cortisone shots and after an appearance in Game 3 of the World Series where they Yankees rallied against him in the ninth inning to take a 3-1 lead in the series, Lidge went back under the knife during the off-season.

Blown saves, shots, surgeries and foolhardy contract extensions are what people mentioned when Lidge’s name was bandied about.

But these days no one really even talks about Lidge much at all. Even after taunting the Braves with his devastating slider for two strikeouts in a perfect ninth to notch his 24th save in 29 chances, Lidge smiled when told that he was quietly having a solid season. Then again, his is the type of job that people only talk about when it isn’t going well. When a closer has a season like the one Lidge is wrapping up behind a trio of ace pitchers like Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hamels, relative anonymity can provide calming reassurance.

“I had two surgeries and the one I had for my knee it got better right away. The one I had on my elbow it just took longer. There was more scar tissue and it took longer to get the muscles working around that,” Lidge explained. “Fortunately, it has. Better late than never, but obviously, if I’m feeling good at the end of the year that’s where I want to be.”

Still, things were just so… bad.  Not just bad, but frustratingly ugly bad where every single out recorded was a war.

“It was frustrating because I was expecting to have that feeling a lot sooner than I did,” Lidge said. “I was working hard on my rehab and figuring it has to come back eventually. Then all of sudden it would come back and then things would swell up again and I’d go get another shot. But fortunately your arm gets into the rhythm of the season again. It was like I was having interrupted spring training for a long time.”

But since the All-Star Break, Lidge has converted on 18 of 20 save chances and after giving up a walk-off homer to Ryan Zimmerman in Washington on July 31, Lidge has gone 14 of 15 in save opportunities, allowing just two earned runs in 19 2/3 innings. During that span he has allowed six walks—three of those in one game—with 22 strikeouts with just eight hits.

Better yet, he’s regained numbers similar to his 2008 season by making some big adjustments… or maybe just reverted back to a familiar pitch.

In ’08, Lidge threw his fastball only 43 percent of the time, opting mostly to go with his slider on 56 percent of his pitches. Actually, those two pitches were enough, considering the fastball barreled in around 94-95 mph and the slider had the look of a changeup until it dived off the table.

But in 2009, Lidge threw his fastball more than half of the time, often using it interchangeably with his best pitch. Hitters battered him at a .306 clip as his strikeouts per nine innings dropped to an all-time low.

So partially out of necessity, mixed with ability, Lidge made big adjustments. Like in 2008, he’s relied more on the slider this season, throwing it at a rate of nearly 60 percent. Meanwhile, his fastball rarely lights it up over 92-mph these days, which means he has to be that much more cognizant of his command.

Still, the metamorphosis is simply the mark more of a guy who gets it as it is someone understanding his health, body and abilities.

“I think the adjustment part, for sure, I can relate to. My adjustment was trying to get out there healthy. I feel like when I am, and I know what I can do but we had to take the steps to make sure I was healthy first,” Lidge explained. “I missed the first two months of this year, and the next two months were back and forth and getting cortisone shots here and there. But then, all of a sudden, you’re arm gets into the rhythm and back into the groove and you’re back into it.”

Around the All-Star Break is when Lidge started feeling better, then he started throwing better. Soon, without much fanfare, things started falling back into place.

“I felt that way in July but I was throwing inconsistently. Toward the end of the month I was throwing better and I know for the last two months when August rolled around I was healthy and knew I was going to start throwing good,” he said. “I just needed to get chances and fortunately I got to in August and that really helped.”

Lidge The results have been somewhat similar to the way they were in ’08. Opponents his .204 against him two years ago, compared to .205 this season. He walked 4.54 per nine innings in ’08 and exactly that same rate so far through 2010. Strangely enough, Lidge’s WHIP in 2008 and 2010 are the same at 1.23.

Is he back?

Just as strange as the rollercoaster ride of emotions and statistics, so too is the notion that Lidge has regained his form. Is it too early to tell, or have folks still not accepted the reality of the past two months of performances?

That’s one to ponder. In the meantime, jump back in that time machine and plop Lidge into some historical perspective….

For instance, Lidge has saved 30 games in four of his six full seasons with two years where he got more than 40 saves. Comparably, Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame—Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm—only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge. Certainly that will change when guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman get in the Hall, but if he were able to get into a time machine and transport his stats to the 1970s and early ‘80s, Lidge would be on the path to a Hall-of-Fame career.

For what it’s worth, he’s prefer a path back to the World Series for now.

“It’s been a fun year,” Lidge said. “The last couple of months have been going really well for the bullpen, and if our starters keep going eight innings we’re going to be looking really good—everyone is going to be well rested down there.”

The not-so mysteriousness of the closer

Brad lidge It’s impossible to know if a single pitch that ends with a bad result can serve as an alarm bell for a pitcher, but ever since Brad Lidge gave up that game-winning home run to Ryan Zimmerman in Washington last weekend, he’s been almost unhittable.

Lidge has appeared in four games since serving up that homer with a one-run lead with one out in the ninth inning at Nationals Park where he has faced 11 hitters and retired 10 of them. Of those 11 hitters, Lidge notched four strikeouts, allowed one single and picked up three more saves to give him 13 this season in 17 chances.

The difference has been his command, says Manuel.

“He’s getting ahead of the hitters or when he falls behind early in the count he rebounds and catches up and he’s in a position to avoid what I call a ‘have-to’ count where he has to throw a certain pitch,” Manuel said. “He’s been getting his slider over and throwing enough fastballs inside. He’s been throwing more strikes.”

No, his season stats don’t pop off the page, but it hasn’t been awful. Though there still is that sense of impending doom when Lidge comes in from the bullpen in the ninth inning and a noticeable loss of velocity in his fastball that he doesn’t throw nearly as much as he did in the past, the results are much improved from last season. Yes, there is still talk about replacing Lidge as the Phillies’ closer amongst fans and media-types, and the $11.5 million he is owed for the 2011 season seems like one of those contracts that might be a year too long. However, when one looks inside the results the conclusion is things could be far worse with any number of closers around the league.

Moreover, when Lidge’s contract ends at the end of next season, there is a pretty good chance that he will have more saves than any anyone else in team history. Lidge needs 27 more saves to tie Jose Mesa with 112 and if he gets there he will probably do it in approximately 50 fewer innings.

So what’s the problem?

For one thing, it’s the ninth inning and it’s a close game. If it wasn’t that way, Lidge wouldn’t be in the game doing that tightrope act where the slightest slip up could end up in a crash landing.

As that goes, there are a handful of tell-all signs that determine whether or not Lidge will be trading high-fives with his teammates at the end of the game or moping off the field with his head down. For instance, if he allows a walk or a hit to the first batter he faces, things have a tendency to go bad. In 28 outings this season, Lidge has allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base eight times (seven on hits) and as those innings progress he has allowed six hits, six walks and seven runs for an ERA of 9.45.

Compared to the 20 games where Lidge gets the first guy out, he has allowed six runs. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that things go much more smoothly when Lidge gets that first out quickly, though he has blown a pair saves in both instances and the Phillies are 6-2 in games where he allows the first hitter to reach base.

Plus, these splits are pretty indicative of most relief pitchers. The result of the first pitch often determines how the at-bat will go and the first hitter can sway the trajectory of the rest of the inning.

Now, quickly, a few things on Lidge…

Lidge has saved 30 games in four of his six full seasons with two years where he got more than 40 saves. For a historical perspective, Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge. Certainly that will change when guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman get in, but if he were able to get into a time machine and transport his stats to the 1970s and early ‘80s, Lidge would be on the path to a Hall-of-Fame career.

Infamously, Lidge also has the highest ERA in baseball history for a pitcher with over 20 saves when he got 31 with a 7.21 ERA last season. Manager Charlie Manuel probably would have gone with a different closer if he had one to do that tightrope act as well as Lidge. Since he didn’t (and doesn’t still), Manuel has a pretty good read on what makes for a smooth night for his closer.

Walks.

Like any pitcher, if Lidge can command his pitches things are going to go well. It doesn’t matter if his fastball is 92-mph or 96 as long as he doesn’t give any free passes. In fact, this season Lidge has walked 14 hitters in 11 outings over 11 innings. In those 11 games/innings, the opposition has scored 11 runs off of Lidge and in three of his four blown saves he’s walked at least one hitter.

“The biggest thing about him is when he can stay away from walking guys or getting behind in the count, it’s almost like any other pitcher,” Manuel said. “That’s when he can get people out.”

No, it’s not a big mystery when it comes to being a successful closer. It’s simple, really… throws strikes, get outs. It couldn’t be any less complicated. But what is complicated is what happens in a game when Lidge is just one out—one pitch—away from getting out of an inning. And in more cases than not, getting out of the inning means ending the game for Lidge.

For some unknown reason, Lidge has allowed 10 of his 13 runs this season with two outs. With two outs, hitters are 12-for-38 against him with six extra-base hits (three homers) and eight walks. That comes to a .435 on-base percentage and 1.066 OPS with two outs…

In the last inning of the game.

Is this where the lack of velocity on the fastball gets Lidge? Sure, the slider is his bread-and-butter pitch, but he needs a good fastball to set it up. With two outs in the last inning of a game it seems as if hitters are waiting for that one pitch, which means now more than ever the closer needs to lean on his guile and wits.

Um… your town is cool, too?


Chi_phl Note:
Variations of this essay have been posted on this space in the past, but since the hacky, trite, tired “city rip” pieces are en vogue, we reworked it and we present it again like new. Sorry, folks, if it makes you feel good about putting down another civic body, you have other issues… you know, besides being a hack.

THE TOWN FORMERLY KNOWN AS ANGRYVILLE — They handle defeat well in Chicago. After all, the Blackhawks, White Sox and especially the Cubs have taught them well. Just think how good at losing they’d be if Portland would have done the right thing and drafted Michael Jordan.

But in Chicago they don't mope, freak out, or litter the field with D-sized batteries during the action. They really don't even complain, to be perfectly frank. Actually, they're used to it.

They just go home. They leave early and fight traffic. They put the crippling defeats out of their minds by skipping work to play in the sun. They just forget about it as they frolic in those glorious public parks beneath sculptures created by Picasso and Oprah with cool drinks and lots of pretty friends.

Loss? Nah, they don't deal with it at all in Chicago. Who has the time? They actually have a beach in the city in Chicago. Life is good and they pick up the trash off the streets, too. Nice place Chicago… it helps them swallow defeat so well.

In Philadelphia we know loss all too well. It's in our DNA. It's intense… no wait, that's wrong. It's intensity.

At least it was.

Back in the old days we all woke up before the dawn just as the rage had regrouped so we could wipe the bitter-tasting bile that has encrusted the corners of our mouths with the outer black sleeve of our spittle-coated Motorhead t-shirts. Then we dragged our sorry asses off the couch where we collapsed just 45 minutes earlier and instinctively thrust a middle finger at the rest of the world.

The day had begun in Philadelphia. The fury must be unleashed. We lost again.

But there is always a fleeting moment — one that usually occurs in the time it takes to get from one knee to a standing position after unfolding oneself from the couch — when stock is taken. A moment, as fast as a flap of a hummingbird's wing, enters our twisted and angry heads:

World weary. Saddened by my years on the road. Seen a lot. Done a lot. Loss? Yeah, I know loss. I know loss with its friends sorrow, fury and death. Yes, loss and me are like this… we're partners as we walk on the dusty trail of life.

But something happened in October of 2008 when Brad Lidge threw that slider past Eric Hinske. Beneath that tiney, porcupine-like exterior, glimpses into our souls were exposed. There was warmth, fear, insecurity…

Victory?

Yes, victory. The Phillies won the World Series. The Flyers are going to the Stanley Cup (yeah, I said it). Both of these things are happening barely months apart. Kind of like it was 1980-81 all over again.

Is Bruce Springsteen still as popular as he was during the dawn of the Reagan Administration? Oh yeah, here in the dawn of the Obama Administration, an adapted Chicagoan no less, Springsteen is playing halftime at the Super Bowl.

In the old days during the B.C. Era[1], Chicago was a place that made it easy to look down upon with our sad, wretched lives of angry and failed dreams. In Chicago, with their manicured parks, gourmet restaurants, unimpeded gentrification, high-brow universities and gleaming skyscrapers the rest of us calls it the city of big shoulders. It burned down and rose again—bigger, better, cleaner, friendlier.

It gets cold and windy, true, but they take that in stride, too.

Lidge Those were the places Philly fans showed up en masse to watch our teams fight for our civic pride. Back in the old, B.C. Era, they saw us coming. We stuck out with that crippled walk of defeat, clenched jaws of stress and disgust, fists balled up and middle fingers erect. When we took the exit ramp off the boulevard of broken dreams to enter these happy, little towns, the local authorities were ready. They had been tipped off ahead of time and were prepared to set up a dragnet at a moment's notice.

But those condescending attitudes and the arrogance in which those people flit through life so carefree and cheery no longer sting. We don't turn them back with our jealousy and resentment. No, instead we take the hackery in stride. The mockery and stereotypes don't hurt any longer.

It's just one of those annoying things that championship cities are used to.

Hey, who knows… maybe there is a bit of respect coming our way? Oh sure, they still trot out the golden oldies:

Boo Santa. Cheer injuries. Snowballs at the Cowboys. Batteries for J.D. Drew. Cheesesteaks. Cracked bells. Anger and passion. Rocky Balboa.

But try this out… sportswriters are afraid of Philadelphians. At least that's (kind of) the contention of one mainstreamer writing for one of those new-fangled web sites.

Really? Uh… nice! So maybe this means that now that the proverbial shoe is on the proverbial other foot, the whole hacky city rip thing is finished? Instead maybe they'll write about the actual ballclubs instead of all the clichés?

Think so?

Of course not.

During the Phillies' run Charlie Manuel was often prophetic, but never more than when he said:

“Winning is hard. Nothing about winning comes easy,” the wizened sage of a baseball manager said. “… believe me, there's a price you pay for winning, too.”

That price can sometimes mean dignity, self-respect and the ability to think clearly.

We're inside the looking glass, people. The Phillies won, the Flyers need two more games…

All things considered, it ain't all that bad to be in Philadelphia. Let them say what they want because we win now. Someday we might even get used to it.


[1] B.C. is "Before Championship(s)"

Strasburg dominant in Reading, but is he ready for the NL East?

Strasburg READING, Pa. — It’s almost easier to expect the worst. Like
maybe his fastball will be flat and hitable, or maybe the torque on his elbow
from throwing his curveball will mean more business for Dr. Frank Jobe.

It’s worth noting that some of baseball’s biggest flops
might have achieved greater fame for being a cautionary tale than if they had
put together a solid big-league career. Oh yes, sometimes we celebrate failure
as much as we immortalize success.

Try this out for size: Ever hear of the pitcher Ed
Figueroa? From 1975 to 1978 he won 71 games, including 20 for the World
Champion Yankees in ’78. Twice during that span Figueroa finished in the top
seven in the Cy Young balloting though he was overshadowed by more well-known
pitchers on the Yankees staff like Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, Sparky Lyle and
Goose Gossage.

Still, from 1976 to 1978, three seasons in which the team
went to the World Series, no Yankees pitcher won more games than Figueroa. Obviously,
he was a solid pitcher for some really good teams.

Now, how many people have heard about Brien Taylor, the
overall No. 1pick in the 1991 draft? Of course you know Brien Taylor. He was
the lefty with electric stuff who signed for a $1.55 bonus with the Yankees and
appeared to be on the fast track to the big leagues until he tore the labrum in
his pitching shoulder in a fight. Taylor pitched in a handful of games in his
final five seasons and never made it past Double-A. These days, according to
reports, he was working for a beer distributor.

No, we’re not comparing Stephen Strasburg to Brien
Taylor. By all accounts Strasburg has been treated as if he were a Ming vase
since he signed with the Washington Nationals after being selected as the top overall
pick in last June’s draft. When the right-hander with the triple-digit fastball
and a knee-buckling curve showed up at First Energy Stadium on Tuesday night
with his Double-A Harrisburg teammates, a veritable entourage of press folks
also took over the quaint, old ballpark.

Scribes from The
New York Times
and Washington Post
came out to watch Strasburg while members of the Nationals’ PR staff strung the
velvet ropes around the 21-year old. Moreover, the fans that turned out on a
chilly night caught a glimpse of something.
Strasburg retired the first 13 he faced before losing the perfect game with one
out in the fifth on a strikeout/passed ball. Regrouping and working out of the
stretch, Strasburg got a pair of ground balls to get out of the inning.

“My command of my pitches allowed me to [throw more
off-speed pitches],” said the pitcher after throwing fastballs on approximately
60 percent of his 64 pitches. “If I don’t have command of my pitches, why would
I throw off-speed? That’s the big thing I was able to do.”

Well, that wasn’t the only big thing he was able to do. All
told, Strasburg did not allow a hit in five innings, picked up six strikeouts
and allowed just two fair balls to leave the infield. And just to make it seem
like he wasn’t just some freak throwing fastballs past everyone, Strasburg
singled home the first run of the game.

Outings like the one on Tuesday night in Reading have
been closer to the norm for the phenom. In four professional starts, Strasburg
has allowed one run in 17 1/3 innings (0.51 ERA), with three walks and 23
strikeouts. In those four starts he has allowed just 11 base runners. On
Tuesday, he topped 96 on the stadium radar gun, but it was more than enough to
overpower Double-A hitters.

In other words, he hasn’t been tested.

So how good is the kid? Or better yet, why is he pitching
for Harrisburg?

“He’s pretty impressive. If he’s able to pitch in
effectively to Major League hitters, then he’s going to be really tough,” said
Brad Lidge, who also was a first-round pick after a solid college career. “He
has command of his changeup and curveball and that kind of arm doesn’t come
around very often. It’s not often to see a guy with that kind of fast ball and
with a good idea of what he’s doing with his off-speed pitches. Hopefully our
hitters will figure him out when he gets called up this year.”

This year, huh? Clearly Strasburg has the stuff to pitch
in the Majors now considering his heater likely got closer to triple-digits
than the stadium gun indicated. Better yet, because he was able to throw his
fastball for strikes, he got a better workout than expected.

Still, it’s difficult to determine how good Strasburg is
until he moves up. Then, of course, expect to hear names like David Clyde and
Todd Van Poppel ticked off the first time the kid gets roughed up. Clyde and
Van Poppel? Yeah, like Strasburg they were both can’t-miss No. 1 picks in the
draft who went on to have very poor big league careers. Combined, the former
top picks went 58-85, which, of course, is 58-85 better than Brien Taylor did.

Nevertheless, Strasburg seems to have prepared himself
for everything. He knows just as many people will be rooting for another flop
as much as a Hall-of-Fame career. Since he grew up in an age where media
encompasses just about every facet of life, Strasburg is better prepared than
perhaps anyone before him. Plus, his college coach was Tony Gwynn—one of the
big leaguers well known for being great.

Well schooled, Strasburg seems grounded enough to not let
it all get ahead of him. He’ll be in the big leagues eventually, so until he
gets the call he has no control of his situation.

“It’s obviously not a normal situation for a guy in his
first year of pro ball, but it goes with the territory and I’ve accepted that,”
he said.

Besides, they have the minor leagues for a reason. Lidge
pitched in 53 games over four seasons in the minors after he left Notre Dame and
made it to the big leagues for good. This experience will be good for
Strasburg, Lidge says.

After all, Clyde went from his high school graduation to
his Major League debut in the same month when he was just 18, while Van Poppel
made his debut when he was 19 after one season in the minors. Clearly those
guys needed a little more seasoning.

“I think it’s a good idea because at the very least it’s
going to get him used to being on that clockwork of the rotation and pitching
every five days,” Lidge said. “If nothing else, he gets to experience the minor
leagues a little bit. That’s a good thing for guys. But clearly he’s showing he’s
ready to move on from Double-A and I’m sure he’ll have the same results in
Triple-A.”

As for the Majors, we’ll probably find out about that
soon enough.

Bolt and a busy week


Usain-bolt-the-bolt-pose Note:
There will be lots going on this week. Both Brad Lidge and Stephen Stasburg pitch in Reading tonight, the Flyers likely will go to Washington to open the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Thursday or Friday, and the Mets come to town. Nevertheless, we’re still hearing from folks about the performance by Usain Bolt at Franklin Field on Saturday.

To be sure, there were a lot of great performances at the Penn Relays last weekend, and take away Bolt and the field was still ridiculously star-studded. But these days Bolt is one of the biggest names in all of sports so that’s what we’re all going crazy about.

So since ESPN is offering two encores of Saturday’s card at the Penn Relays, we’ll repost the Bolt feature from CSNPhilly.com.

Get ready for some more baseball and hockey beginning tonight.

World’s Fastest Man Puts on a Show at Franklin Field

There aren’t too many titles that cause a crowd or force folks to react. The President of the United States is one. So too is the heavyweight champion of the world. Generally, those are two jobs that make people change their schedules or travel long distances just to catch a glimpse, and even then it’s just to catch a peek amongst thousands of other folks.

These days though, those titles don’t seem to be as respected as they were in the past. The President could be one of the most polarizing figures around, while it’s difficult to figure out who exactly the heavyweight champion of the world is. In fact, ex-champs like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson pack ‘em in, though more out of curiosity than anything else.

And that is no knock on Ali by comparing him to Tyson.

But mention the “fastest man on earth” and get ready to fill a stadium and/or cause a small riot. Certainly that was the scene at Franklin Field on Saturday afternoon when Usain Bolt showed up to race in the USA vs. The World competition at the Penn Relays.

Bolt, of course, is the 23-year-old Jamaican who destroyed the world records in the 100- and 200-meters at the Olympics in 2008 and the World Championships in 2009 in a manner that transcended mere athletics. In fact, Bolt’s electrifying efforts at those competitions motivated a even a few of the most jaded and experienced sports writers to describe the events as the most exciting and exhilarating they had ever seen.

Moreover, crusty old veteran track coaches have gone so far as to compare Bolt’s talent along the lines of those possessed by Einstein, Beethoven and Newton. Certainly those aren’t the usual names one hears an elite-level athlete compared to.

Chalk part of it up to the cult of personality. Sure, his talent is so far beyond his contemporaries that an “easy” effort against competition that featured the owners of 14 Olympic medals. For a non-Olympic and World Championships year, the 4×100-meter competition at the Penn Relays just might have been the best in the world this year.

Still, the largest crowd in the 116-year history of the event all came to see one guy, and he competed for just 8.79 seconds in his anchor leg effort. Actually, Bolt’s personality is so large in the sport that Olympic gold medalists and champions of the sport lingered around the track just to catch a glimpse.

“I was leadoff leg and I could actually hear, right next to me, the crowd screaming. I’ve been coming here for about 12 years now, and this was the loudest one. It was great,” said two-time world champion, Lisa Barber, who helped Team USA win the women’s 4×100-meters. “When Bolt was warming up, I couldn’t hear my music anymore through my headphones. It’s great that Usain is getting this much press. He’s getting so much recognition worldwide.”

It’s worth asking who the most famous athlete on the planet is these days. Certainly Tiger Woods is pretty well known, though that has very little to do with his sport. Bolt was asked about Michael Jordan, but his Airness has been retired for nearly a decade and his successors, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, aren’t the best players in their sport on any given night.

So in terms of pure domination of a sport on a consistent basis, Bolt is the greatest on the planet. And just like all of the races he has been in since 2008, it isn’t even close.

“Over the past two years I’ve been surprised by the amount of people that know me and the welcome I get when I go to track meets or functions,” Bolt said. “For me I’m still trying to get used to it and I’m enjoying it.”

As for the runners he’s beating, it isn’t so much fun. Before 2008, the 4×100 USA team that competed at the Penn Relays on Saturday would be the best in the world and the group that competed last year set the meet record. The loquacious and personable Shawn Crawford, the Olympic champion in the 200-meters in 2004, but finished a distant second to Bolt in 2008, appears to be frustrated by Bolt’s talents. Though he’s creeping up on the end of his career, Crawford knows the window for knocking off the fastest man on earth is closing quickly.

That is if it’s even open at all.

Team USA with medalist Walter Dix and anchorman Ivory Williams, Mike Rodgers and Crawford, actually had a nice lead over Jamaica heading into the final leg.

Then Bolt got the baton.

“I just hate to lose,” Crawford said, muttering a few unprintable words under his breath.

“[Racing against Bolt] excites and it motivates. The more excitement they bring to track and field, we all get the attention because we’re on the same playing field. But it motivates me because you want to be that guy winning. I want to get up there and showboat a little bit and be in the spotlight so I can talk a little mess.

“Well, I already talk mess.”

Talk is cheap, of course. Bolt doesn’t appear to say much on the track aside from flashing his trademarked “Lightning Bolt” pose, which probably is the coolest bit of posturing in all of sports.

Actually, just seeing Bolt run might be the coolest and surreal effort in sports. Standing yards away from the finishing line on Saturday, Bolt moves past as if he were a runaway motorcycle and the breeze from his nearly 30-mph wake was enough to cool the crowd on a sun-soaked afternoon.

“I told the guys to make sure I didn’t have to work, because I really didn’t want to do much,” Bolt said. “I got the baton, so I wasn’t really worried about anything else.”

Worried? What could the fastest man in the history of the earth ever have to worry about?

How bad does the (injury) bug bite?

Rollins When the Phillies showed up for spring training two months ago, it was difficult to imagine the team not winning the NL East for a fourth season in a row. With the core group heading into its athletic and physiological prime and the addition of Roy Halladay to the top of the rotation, the over/under on wins was placed at 95 by the swells in Vegas.

The Phillies will hit unlike no other Phillies team ever and they have a horse that has piled up at least 220 innings the past four years.

Truth is, things are so rosy with the Phillies as its hitters have bludgeoned the Nationals and Astros in the first seven games, that no one wants to jinx anything. Come on… why bring up something like the potential for injuries and be a mush? Why do that when the Phillies have used the schedule to their advantage in order to rush out to the best record in baseball?

Injuries are a tricky thing because no one in sports ever knows how the body is going to respond. Your calf injury recovers at a different rate than someone like Jimmy Rollins. See, as a shortstop whose speed and quickness is what helped get him to the big leagues in the first place, the calf muscle is that much more important. That’s the muscle that is the engine for Rollins. A balky calf means Rollins doesn’t go from first to third when Placido Polanco laces one to right field or goes from first to home when Chase Utley bangs one into the gap.

And without Rollins at the top of the batting order the entire dynamic of the offense gets knocked off kilter a bit.

Oh sure, even if it turns out that Rollins has a Grade 2 sprain of his calf like a source told CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury on Monday and has to serve some time on the disabled list, the Phillies still will win the NL East. The same goes for Jayson Werth, who likely will miss a game or two with a sore hip that “grabbed” him during Monday’s victory over lowly Washington.

Thanks to some wise off-season acquisitions, the Phillies have Juan Castro to play short if Rollins goes out for a bit instead of Eric Bruntlett. The Phils also have Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs or Ross Gload to play the outfield for Werth if he needs a few games off.

Sure, losing those players will sting a bit, but they only mask the real concern that could cause the 2010 season to blow up like one of those trick cigars in the cartoons.

The concern: what if Brad Lidge doesn’t get it back this year?

No, I’m no doctor and chances are I would have flunked out of medical school within a week of attending a single class. However, a late March cortisone shot into his sore right arm mixed with two rehab outings at Single-A in which he has allowed five runs, five hits, a walk and no strikeouts in 1 2/3 innings is attention grabbing.

Yes, Lidge is coming off yet another surgery—his third since joining the Phillies before the 2008 season—and it probably will take a bit for him to get back his strength. But what happens if he doesn’t get it back? Or let’s say he gets it back and turns in another year like he did in ’09 when he saved 31 games, but allowed 51 runs in 58 2/3 innings?

Then what?

Ryan Madson, the Phillies’ acting closer, says there are no worries on his end. In fact, he pointed out after getting his second save of the year on Monday, talk of a thin bullpen is an annual rite of spring around these parts.

If there is ever one thing guys like me like to pick at as if it’s a mealy old scab, it’s the Phils’ bullpen depth. Madson has noticed.

“Every year I've been here, it’s about the bullpen,” he said. “It’s our weakest link. You're going to have something that’s not like the lineup we've got.”

The thing about injuries is they give guys like Madson a chance. When they hear the chatter or the put-on panic about the team’s chances when a key player goes down it only serves to motivate. Besides, Madson says, the bullpen was another one of those areas where a couple of off-season acquisitions just might pan out. Veteran Jose Contreras is making the transition from starter to reliever and just might have the stuff to close out games if needed. Rule 5 guy Dave Herndon has been impressive in limited action.

So far this season the Phils’ relievers have allowed just three runs with 18 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. That comes to a 1.33 ERA, which is second-best in the Majors.

“We’ve got plenty of arms out there that have been throwing the ball really well,” Madson said. “It will be nice when they get back, but for now, we've got good arms out there. We’re happy.”

There’s no reason not to be. Not yet, anyway. The Phillies have worked over the lowly Nats and Astros, but that will change soon when they get deeper into the schedule.

That’s when we find out just how costly those aches and pains really are.

A shot in the dark

Brad Lidge Sometimes it feels like we write the same thing over and
over again. It’s not quite a Groundhog’s Day thing, but often with sports some
of the themes repeat themselves.

Actually, those themes can repeat themselves with the
same guy, too. For instance, last April I wrote this:

Lidge, it was
revealed after Monday’s game, has inflammation in his right knee and was
unavailable to pitch. Though Lidge is listed as day-to-day, the inflammation
was severe enough for the closer to undergo an MRI last Monday and then have a
cortisone shot last Wednesday. For now the closer and manager Charlie Manuel
are hopeful that a trip to the disabled list is not needed.

“We don’t think so yet,” said Manuel striking an ominous tone when asked if
Lidge could land on the DL.

Lidge also is optimistic despite the fact that the swelling and soreness is on
the same knee that he had operated on twice in 2008. However, Lidge pointed out
that his knee hurts when he pushes off the rubber from the stretch.

The good news is that the MRI revealed no structural damage to the knee, but
there was excess fluid and swelling, the pitcher said.

“Based on the MRI I’m not overly concerned,” Lidge said, standing in front of
his locker with a large ice pack wrapped around his right knee. “It’s something
that I’m just dealing with the fluid and inflammation. I’m concerned on a small
level because it’s not feeling great and I want to get back there as soon as
possible. But I think if we nip it in the bud right now, hopefully it will be
something I won’t have to worry about for the rest of the year.”

Sound familiar? Lidge something just like that when he
got a cortisone shot the other day, only this time is was for his right arm. So
if you’re scoring at home, Lidge has had three cortisone shots in the past 12
months, as well as surgery to remove chips out of his throwing arm. Going back
to when he first signed on with the Phillies, Lidge has had three surgeries—two
on his knee—and a bunch of MRIs.

Oh yes, Lidge has a pretty good health care plan from
playing for the Phillies.

And you know what? It’s a good thing, too. If history is
any indication, he’s going to need it. After all, even in his best season Lidge
was hurt. Remember that? He started the 2008 season on the disabled list after
having two different surgeries on his knee before the season began and went out
to close out 48 straight games. Considering that he had been removed from the
closer’s role in his last season in Houston, Lidge’s perfect season came out of
nowhere.

The oddest part is that even though Lidge was banged up,
disabled and pitching with chips in his arm, he still appeared in more games in
2009 (67) than he did in 2007 (66).

Now here’s where it’s all connected… Lidge and the
Phillies have said pretty much the same thing throughout. That quote in italics
above sounds a lot like what Lidge said when he got the cortisone shot the
other day.

“This puts you a couple days behind where you want to be,”
Lidge said. “That being said, if it works, like we're hoping it's going to,
it's going to speed up things a lot on the other side of that.”

The one word common to both quotes is “hope.” Last season
manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hoped Lidge would bounce back from the breaks and the shots and
find his lost form—you know for as much as a guy pitching with fragments in his
elbow could rebound.

This year Lidge and the Phils hope his fastball can top 90-mph and he can get back to saving
games a little more efficiently than last year where he set a record for the
highest ERA (7.21) by a pitcher with more than 20 saves. But that’s just it—it’s
just hope. The only guarantee is that Lidge will get paid the remainder of his
$37.5 million deal through the 2011 season (with $1.5 buyout of the option for
2012).

Look, Lidge very well might regain his lost form after
another stint on the disabled list. After all, the team physician and the front
office say the latest cortisone shot was no big deal. That very well could be
the case since Lidge says he feels strong.

“My arm strength is good and my slider was coming around
and everything else was going the way it should, but velocity was not going,”
Lidge said. “Rather than projecting on when it will, we decided to take action
into our own hands, get a cortisone shot and speed the process up.”

Said Amaro: “I think you guys are making a little too
much of the cortisone shot. If this helps accelerate him in getting his
velocity back, that's more the nature of it.”

However, Lidge very well might be the recipient of the
very first cortisone shot that was not a big deal. After all, there’s a reason
why cortisone injections are banned in nearly every other professional and amateur
sports around the world. According to Brian J. Cole, MD, MBA and H. Ralph
Schumacher, Jr, MD in the Journal of
American Academy of
Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Lidge and the Phillies could be teetering on the edge
of some long-term effects.

Physicians do not
want to give more than three, but there is not really a specific limit to the
number of shots. However, there are some practical limitations. If a cortisone
injection wears off quickly or does not help the problem, then repeating it may
not be worthwhile. Also, animal studies have shown effects of weakening of
tendons and softening of cartilage with cortisone injections. Repeated
cortisone injections multiply these effects and increase the risk of potential
problems. This is the reason many physicians limit the number of injections
they offer to a patient.

So there’s that and we haven’t even discussed the future
of the Phillies’ bullpen. Smartly, though, Manuel cut to the chase about Lidge’s
return from this injury.

“We’re just speculating,” Manuel said, “and that’s not
good.”

World Series: Bad beats

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com PHILADELPHIA—For a franchise that has lost more games than any other team in pro sports history, the Phillies have suffered through more than their fair share of humiliating defeats. In fact, if Philadelphia were the hoity-toity center of arts and letters like Boston and New York, there would be books, poems, curses and movies produced about some of the more devastating of these losses.

Of course the World Series victories in 1980 and 2008 have tempered some of the emotion of the losses, but if that were not the case chances are last night’s defeat in Game 4 of the World Series would take on a greater magnitude.

Instead, we’ll just label it a tough loss and wait to see how the rest of the series plays out.

Still, it’s worth investigating just where the Game 4 loss ranks. Upon reflection, the 2009 Game 4 defeat mirrors the one in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. That’s the one where the Phillies took a 14-9 lead into the eighth inning only to have the Blue Jays rally for six runs in the inning against Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams. Just when it looked as if the Phillies were going to tie up the series at 2-2, one inning put the club in a 3-1 series deficit and paved the way for Joe Carter’s series-ending homer in Game 6.

Before that point, though, Curt Schilling pitched a shutout in Game 5. That’s a role the Phillies are hoping is reprised by Cliff Lee in tonight’s Game 5. In fact, the similarities are downright uncanny. I remember walking in the bowels of the Vet before Schilling’s first, true World Series gem and seeing the victory champagne, the championship t-shirts and a whole lot of Molson beer in boxes outside the Blue Jays clubhouse.

Schilling made them cart it all the way to Toronto and the Phillies were two outs away from forcing a Game 7 until Jim Fregosi called in Mitchy-poo.

The rest is history.

As for the ’93 Game 4, Andersen said he doesn’t think the mood in the clubhouse after that loss was too different than it was with the Phillies last night. Both clubs had been through so much during the long season that one difficult defeat didn’t affect morale.

Of course we all know how Game 6 shook up the ’93 Phils and the city. Williams was traded to Houston, John Kruk beat cancer, Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton began their descent marked by injuries and that team quickly broke up.

Roger Mason we hardly knew ye.

As for last night’s loss it seemed as if a few of the guys got fired up by the notion of doom and gloom. Cliff Lee walked into the clubhouse and a wry smile took over his face when he took in the scene of a media horde picking at Brad Lidge as if they were vultures picking at a dead animal by the side of the road.

mitch.jpg Of course Lidge’s teammates didn’t help matters by leaving the closer out there all by himself to answer question after question, but eventually a few trickled out. Heck, even Chase Utley misread the extended media deadlines for the World Series and had to entertain questions from the press.

Nope, Utley only has time for the media when he needs to promote his charity.

“We play like every game’s our last anyway,” Utley said. “So this should be no different.”

Regardless, Jimmy Rollins probably said it best about the Phillies’ attitude heading into their first elimination game since the 2007 NLDS. Don’t expect any rah-rah speeches or extra histrionics from the home team, he says.

“I guess that works real well in Hollywood movies,” Rollins said. “You make this grand speech and everybody turns around and becomes superheroes. But we all know what we have to do. We talked about it in the lunch room, what’s the task at hand. And Charlie, if he wants to say something, he’ll say something. Other than that, the focus and the job doesn’t change.”

Yes that’s true. However, the stakes have changed greatly.

*
While we’re on the subject of ugly losses in team history, where does Cole Hamels’ failure in Game 3 rank. Sure, we’re waxing on about Game 4, but Hamels and the Phillies were in an excellent spot in Game 3 before the fifth-inning meltdown.

As a result, it would be difficult for Manuel to send Hamels to the mound for Game 7 at Yankee Stadium should it come to that. Moreover, there just might be a swirl of trade talk regarding Hamels this winter… perhaps involving a certain right-hander for Toronto.

“This year has been tough on him,” Manuel said. “He’s kind of had a weird year. You’ve heard me say that over and over. What he’s going through right now, it’s going to be an experience, because he’s going through the part where he’s failed.”

Manuel pointed out that bad years on the heels of overwhelming success aren’t extraordinary. In fact, they happen all the time to really good pitchers. Hall of Famers, even.

“I think that’s just the way it goes. And I can name you pitchers that have had the same problem he has. Saberhagen, Palmer, Jim Palmer, Beckett. I mean, if I stood here and think, I can think of more,” Manuel said. “You go back and look, after they have the big year, it’s not something — Pat Burrell as a player, hit 37 home runs, and the following year I remember when I first came over here, one of my things was I worked with his hitting. And the reason is because he was having a bad year. That’s baseball, and sometimes that’s what happens. That doesn’t mean that a guy is not going to meet your expectations of him. I think it’s just a matter of him getting things going again and feeling real good about himself, and he’ll go out there and produce for you.”

Whether or not this affects Hamels’ role with the club for the rest of the 2009 season has yet to be determined. But make no mistake about it—the Phillies’ faith in Hamels just isn’t there any more.

Tough year on the field, but not off

Brad LidgeBaring a moment of insanity or just pure incompetence, the local chapter of the BBWAA will vote to give Brad Lidge its “Good Guy” award this year. No, this isn’t a big deal and the relevancy of the national wing of the BBWAA is questionable at best these days.

You know, secret societies being what they are and all.

Nevertheless, if there is one person who should be acknowledged for being a stand-up dude this season, it is Brad Lidge. After all, no matter how ugly it got on the mound or how frustrating it was following those eight losses and 11 blown saves, Lidge bravely faced the music with his teammates, coaches and media. That’s a bit of a rarity these days. Better yet, not only was he consistent in demeanor, he has been accountable and kept his dignity.

In fact, Lidge has been no different in 2009 when talking about his performance than he was in 2008 when he nailed down 48 save chances in a row. He stands there and deconstructs every pitch, indulges every question and relives the horror (or glory) after every outing.

Could you imagine if a politician, a doctor or lawyer had to face the music after a day at work the way Lidge has this year?

Anyway, in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, columnist Phil Taylor weighed in on how Lidge has handled the difficult season with great dignity and aplomb. As Taylor wrote:

It’s like going to sleep as James Bond and waking up as Inspector Clouseau. “My preparation is the same, my intensity, my focus, my effort, they’re all the same as last season, but the results just—aren’t,” the 32-year-old Lidge says. “There are definitely times when I wonder, What’s going on here?”

The rest of us are wondering the same thing, but not so much about his pitching. What’s going on with all this self-control? No athlete in recent memory has gone from being perfect one season to putrid the next, so if ever a player could be forgiven for snapping, it’s Lidge. Yet he continues to handle his struggles with grace and civility, which is just so … unfashionable.

Hasn’t he been paying attention? That’s not the way it’s done at a time when rage is all the rage. If you’re on the verge of losing to an underdog in the U.S. Open, you take it out on your racket and the line judge, the way Serena Williams did. If an opponent shows little class by taunting, you show even less by slugging him, as Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount did after the Ducks’ loss to Boise State. If the kick returner on your team lets a shot at a season-opening upset slip away, you take your frustrations out by spray-painting his lawn, the way Bills fans did after Leodis McKelvin’s fumble at New England.

Even with all of those angry precedents to follow, Lidge’s stack remains unblown; not once has he had to release an insincere, intentionally vague apology for some embarrassing loss of temper. Manager Charlie Manuel pulled him in a save situation against the Nationals two weeks ago, the first time as a Phillie that Lidge had suffered that indignity. Some relievers might have grabbed the biggest bat they could find and done a little impromptu demolition work in the clubhouse, but Lidge stayed in the dugout, demonstrably rooting on his replacement, Ryan Madson.

Staring out at a light rain last week, Lidge matter-of-factly discussed his performance, his affable demeanor never changing even as he used words like “crappy” and “terrible.” After a particularly galling blown save against the Astros, his former team, he had sat in front of his locker so distraught that a Phillies staffer told him it would be fine if he chose not to speak to the media. Instead of taking the invitation to duck out, he took a deep breath and relived the ugly outing for his questioners—facing things, as Manuel puts it, “like a man.”

Yes, Lidge has been downright dreadful on the mound this season. In fact, there have been times when it has been uncomfortable to watch him try and get hitters out. Worse, sometimes it seems as if Lidge has been on the wrong end of “pity applause,” which isn’t mean spirited, but it’s infuriating just the same. Last when Lidge would get an out the fans would erupt and celebrate another victory. This year, instead, outs are met with cheers but there is some sarcasm behind them.

Yet Lidge has pushed on. He may be bad on the mound, but off it he’s been the ace. And in the end isn’t that what really matters? Sure, sportswriters and fans talk about things like legacies and history, but that only applies to what happens between the lines.

Maybe that should change? When it comes to a true legacy maybe Lidge is ahead of the game. He’s a good dude and in the end that always matters more than anything a person can do on a ball field.

And who knows, Lidge said a few weeks ago that the true measure of a baseball season is how it ends. If this season ends just as well as last year, Lidge says it will all be worth it. However, it already has been worth it for the folks who get to talk to him on a regular basis.

Tough year on the field, but not off

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Baring a moment of insanity or just pure incompetence, the local chapter of the BBWAA will vote to give Brad Lidge its “Good Guy” award this year. No, this isn’t a big deal and the relevancy of the national wing of the BBWAA is questionable at best these days.

You know, secret societies being what they are and all.

Nevertheless, if there is one person who should be acknowledged for being a stand-up dude this season, it is Brad Lidge. After all, no matter how ugly it got on the mound or how frustrating it was following those eight losses and 11 blown saves, Lidge bravely faced the music with his teammates, coaches and media. That’s a bit of a rarity these days. Better yet, not only was he consistent in demeanor, he has been accountable and kept his dignity.

In fact, Lidge has been no different in 2009 when talking about his performance than he was in 2008 when he nailed down 48 save chances in a row. He stands there and deconstructs every pitch, indulges every question and relives the horror (or glory) after every outing.

Could you imagine if a politician, a doctor or lawyer had to face the music after a day at work the way Lidge has this year?

Anyway, in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, columnist Phil Taylor weighed in on how Lidge has handled the difficult season with great dignity and aplomb. As Taylor wrote:

It’s like going to sleep as James Bond and waking up as Inspector Clouseau. “My preparation is the same, my intensity, my focus, my effort, they’re all the same as last season, but the results just—aren’t,” the 32-year-old Lidge says. “There are definitely times when I wonder, What’s going on here?”


The rest of us are wondering the same thing, but not so much about his pitching. What’s going on with all this self-control? No athlete in recent memory has gone from being perfect one season to putrid the next, so if ever a player could be forgiven for snapping, it’s Lidge. Yet he continues to handle his struggles with grace and civility, which is just so … unfashionable.


Hasn’t he been paying attention? That’s not the way it’s done at a time when rage is all the rage. If you’re on the verge of losing to an underdog in the U.S. Open, you take it out on your racket and the line judge, the way Serena Williams did. If an opponent shows little class by taunting, you show even less by slugging him, as Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount did after the Ducks’ loss to Boise State. If the kick returner on your team lets a shot at a season-opening upset slip away, you take your frustrations out by spray-painting his lawn, the way Bills fans did after Leodis McKelvin’s fumble at New England.


Even with all of those angry precedents to follow, Lidge’s stack remains unblown; not once has he had to release an insincere, intentionally vague apology for some embarrassing loss of temper. Manager Charlie Manuel pulled him in a save situation against the Nationals two weeks ago, the first time as a Phillie that Lidge had suffered that indignity. Some relievers might have grabbed the biggest bat they could find and done a little impromptu demolition work in the clubhouse, but Lidge stayed in the dugout, demonstrably rooting on his replacement, Ryan Madson.


Staring out at a light rain last week, Lidge matter-of-factly discussed his performance, his affable demeanor never changing even as he used words like “crappy” and “terrible.” After a particularly galling blown save against the Astros, his former team, he had sat in front of his locker so distraught that a Phillies staffer told him it would be fine if he chose not to speak to the media. Instead of taking the invitation to duck out, he took a deep breath and relived the ugly outing for his questioners—facing things, as Manuel puts it, “like a man.”


Yes, Lidge has been downright dreadful on the mound this season. In fact, there have been times when it has been uncomfortable to watch him try and get hitters out. Worse, sometimes it seems as if Lidge has been on the wrong end of “pity applause,” which isn’t mean spirited, but it’s infuriating just the same. Last when Lidge would get an out the fans would erupt and celebrate another victory. This year, instead, outs are met with cheers but there is some sarcasm behind them.

Yet Lidge has pushed on. He may be bad on the mound, but off it he’s been the ace. And in the end isn’t that what really matters? Sure, sportswriters and fans talk about things like legacies and history, but that only applies to what happens between the lines.

Maybe that should change? When it comes to a true legacy maybe Lidge is ahead of the game. He’s a good dude and in the end that always matters more than anything a person can do on a ball field.

And who knows, Lidge said a few weeks ago that the true measure of a baseball season is how it ends. If this season ends just as well as last year, Lidge says it will all be worth it. However, it already has been worth it for the folks who get to talk to him on a regular basis.

Hell’s Bells: Trevor Hoffman’s uncanny consistency

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Ed. note: I wrote this post after a bout of 3 a.m. insomnia that followed a trip to Milwaukee's famed Safe House on Saturday morning. I liked the idea of the story so much that I asked Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee about it on Saturday afternoon. I also saw Trevor Hoffman tooling around on his skateboard in the parking lot at Miller Park before the game… that ol' whipper-snapper!

MILWAUKEE – To hear those bells… those hell's bells, is something to recognize. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it or heard it, as soon as the first toll from that ominous-sounding bell echoes through the ballpark, it’s difficult not to feel something.

Trevor Hoffman has been making that half-jog, half-speedwalk in from the bullpen for the ninth inning since 1993. Fifteen of those seasons occurred in San Diego, but this year Hoffman has been closing out games in Milwaukee. If he gets his way he’ll be back again for the 2010 season.

And why shouldn’t he return? Aside from 2003 where injuries cost him all but nine games, Hoffman has saved at least 20 games in every season since 1994. He has saved at least 30 games since 1995 and added to his all-time record by retiring three in a row against the Phillies on Friday night at Miller Park to give him 590 career saves.

Think about that for a second and then consider this… Hoffman has as many saves against the Los Angeles Dodgers (68) during his career as Rawley Eastwick saved in eight big league seasons.

What’s the big deal about Rawley Eastwick, you ask? Well, the lefty who pitched for the Reds, Cardinals, Yankees and Phillies during his career, led the Majors in saves in 1975 and 1976 for The Big Red Machine. Certainly there were plenty of chances for Eastwick to close out games since those Reds clubs rate amongst the greatest of all time, but the 1976 Rolaids Relief Fireman of the Year just didn’t pile ‘em up the way Hoffman has.

Hell, 17 seasons into his career, the all-time saves leader has nearly twice as many saves as Hall-of-Fame closer, Bruce Sutter.

So the question is, how does he do it? How does Hoffman put together epic saves seasons every year no matter what? How does he do it with just a changeup and a four-seamer that rarely (if ever) tops 90 mph? When those bells ring, Angus Young strikes that first chord on his Gibson guitar and Brian Johnson lets loose that howl in that classic cut from AC/DC's Back in Black, the opposition knows exactly what to expect. Yet somehow the modest right-hander with the high leg kick and loose motion from the stretch just gets outs.

Hoffman has never recorded more than seven blown saves in any of his 17 seasons, and he’s reached that high-water mark five times. But add it all up and Hoffman has 70 blown saves in 660 chances. In not nearly half as many seasons as Hoffman, Phillies closer Brad Lidge has more than half the total of blown saves as the all-time save king.

Even this season – his first in Milwaukee – Hoffman has saved 36 games in 39 chances. At age 41 he has a 1.80 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 50 innings that got him his seventh All-Star Game nod. Nearly peerless in a role that burns out pitchers quicker than any job in baseball, Hoffman has figured out a way to persevere. Considering all that has gone on with Lidge and the Phillies this season, it’s remarkable to see Hoffman turning in yet another outstanding season not just at his age and with his stuff, but also for so many years without fail.

"You know the way I think about these things," Hoffman said last week. "Every time I save a game, that means it's another win for my team. The numbers just pile up accordingly."

Even more remarkable is how Hoffman does it every year like clockwork and the Phillies have never had a closer put together more than three seasons of working in the ninth inning. Since 1976 when Eastwick won the very first Rolaids Relief Fireman of the Year Award, the Phillies have had three different pitchers win the honor (Al Holland in ’83, Steve Bedrosian on ’87, and Lidge in ’08), but not one to hold down the closers’ role for more than three seasons.

And as one can see by looking at the list of Phillies’ closers, there is not a ton of consistency. That’s especially the case considering the Phillies have had 11 primary closers since Hoffman broke into the league.

Take a look:

1976 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
1977 – Gene Garber (19 saves)
1978 – Ron Reed (17 saves)
1979 – Tug McGraw (16 saves)
1980 – Tug McGraw (20 saves)
1981 – Tug McGraw (10 saves)
1982 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
1983 – Al Holland (25 saves)
1984 – Al Holland (29 saves)
1985 – Kent Tekulve (14 saves)
1986 – Steve Bedrosian (29 saves)
1987 – Steve Bedrosian (40 saves)
1988 – Steve Bedrosian (28 saves)
1989 – Roger McDowell (19 saves)
1990 – Roger McDowell (22 saves)
1991 – Mitch Williams (30 saves)
1992 – Mitch Williams – (29 saves)
1993 – Mitch Williams (43 saves)
1994 – Doug Jones – (27 saves)
1995 – Heathcliff Slocumb (32 saves)
1996 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
1997 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
1998 – Mark Leiter (23 saves)
1999 – Wayne Gomes (19 saves)
2000 – Jeff Brantley (23 saves)
2001 – Jose Mesa (42 saves)
2002 – Jose Mesa (45 saves)
2003 – Jose Mesa (23 saves)
2004 – Billy Wagner (21 saves)
2005 – Billy Wagner (38 saves)
2006 – Tom Gordon (34 saves)
2007 – Brett Myers (21 saves)
2008 – Brad Lidge (41 saves)
2009 – Brad Lidge (31 saves)

Meanwhile in New York, Mariano Rivera is wrapping up his 15th straight season of eerily similar consistency to Hoffman. And no, it doesn’t seem as if the fans in Milwaukee or New York understand how lucky they are to have so much consistency in the ninth.

Party like it’s 1976

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Baring a collapse of New York Mets proportions, the Phillies will clinch the NL East for the third season in a row. The Three-peat in the East has occurred just one other time in team history and continues a string of a dearth of champs in the East. Following the Phillies’ victory in 1993, only the Braves and Mets have won the division aside from the current batch of Phillies.

In other words, the NL East resembles the NBA Finals during the 1980s when only the Celtics, Sixers, Rockets and Lakers ever got there. Eventually the Pistons and Bulls broke through, but for a long time it seemed as if only a handful of teams ever made it to the big dance.

Nevertheless, the clincher for the Phillies will likely come this weekend in Milwaukee. And as a result of sewing things up with a week to go in the season (at least), it will go down as the earliest clincher in terms of games played. To capture their first playoff berth in 26 years in 1976, the Phillies wrapped up the East in Game 155.

If the Phillies clinch before Sunday, it will be the earliest the team ensured a playoff berth ever. Even in 1950, before the advent of divisional play, the Phillies needed the full slate of games to get to the postseason.

Anyway, here’s a look at the playoff-clinching games since Major League Baseball started divisional play.

2008
Game 161 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 27)

Box score

Remember this one? Remember how you felt when Brad Lidge loaded the bases with one out and the go-ahead runs in scoring position and how the shot by Ryan Zimmerman looked like it was going to ruin the closer’s perfect slate?

Kind of feels a lot like this year, doesn’t it?

Aside from Jimmy Rollins’ heroic diving stop to spin the game-ending double play, this one is remembered for Jamie Moyer’s second straight win in a clinching game. Aside from his effort in Game 3 of the World Series, the finales in 2007 and 2008 will be the old lefty’s legacy with the Phillies.

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com 2007
Game 162 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 30)

Box score

The fact that the Phillies were even in a position to win the East took an unprecedented collapse by the Mets. Couple the huge comeback (down 6½ games with 17 to go) with a 14-year playoff drought, and the clubhouse scene was one of the all-time great parties in the history of Philadelphia clinchers.

The truth is a lot of us never saw such a thing. Champagne corks popping and flying all over the room. Beer spray dousing everyone and anything that moves. Pharmaceuticals and English bulldogs show up and drag low-end celebrities and political chaff around, too.

In other words, it’s no different than the parties you threw in college only without the bonfire. Where this party had it over those from back in the college days is that Jade McCarthy and J.D. Durbin made it to this one, and, well… when Jade and J.D. show up then it’s a party.

Of course by the time the fog cleared and the playoffs began, the Phillies were gone in four days.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com
Game 157 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 28)

Box score

Get a load of this… I watched this one from the balcony at the Troc at a Fugazi show. Some guy sitting in front of me had a Sony watchman TV and we got to see Mariano Duncan crush the game-winning grand slam before the band took the stage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Commonwealth, Harry Kalas was singing High Hopes after the Phils finally wrapped it up. But since this was the Macho Row era of club, the party didn’t end with the sing-a-long. Oh no. Check out the box score for the day after the clincher and check who IS NOT in the lineup.

That oughta tell you how long into the night this one went.

1983
Game 160 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 28)

Box score

Who would have guessed that there would have been just one more clincher for the Phillies in the next 24 years after this one? Sheesh.

Regardless, this one was in the days before there were lights at Wrigley Field so it’s likely that Larry Andersen took the guys over to The Lodge after the clubhouse celebration ended.

Here’s what I remember from this one – Mike Schmidt hit his 40th homer of the season and Bo Diaz clubbed two of them all off ex-Phillie Dick Ruthven. The last out was caught by Greg Gross in left field with Al “Mr. T” Holland on the mound. I guess Holland looked like Mr. T to get a nickname like that. Seemed like a fun guy.

1981
Won first half

This was the strike year so by virtue of being in first place by the time the work stoppage occurred, the Phillies went to the first-ever NLDS. They lost in five games to the Expos, though St. Louis had the best overall record in the NL East.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 1980
Game 161 vs. Montreal at Olympic Stadium (Oct. 4)

Box score

If we were ranking the best regular-season games in Phillies history, this one would have to be in the top three. Maybe even the top two. Frankly, it had everything. Comebacks, drama, suspense, crazy manager moves and then Mike Schmidt’s home run in the 11th to give the Phillies the lead they never gave up.

Oh, but if Schmidt’s homer were the only highlight.

  • Bob Boone laced a two-out single in the top of the 9th to tie the game and force extra innings.
  • Tug McGraw pitched the last three innings allowing just one hit to go with four strikeouts to get the win.
  • September call up Don McCormack came in to catch in just his second big league inning in the ninth when Dallas Green yanked Boone for a pinch runner. McCormack got the first of his two Major League hits after Schmidt’s homer in the 11th. From there, McCormack went on to play in just 14 big league innings the rest of his career over three game.

How did Don McCormack get into that game?!

  • The top four hitters in the Phillies lineup (Rose, McBride, Schmidt, Luzinski) went 11-for-19.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 1978
Game 161 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 30)

Box score

Here was the scenario for this one – if the Pirates won, then Game 162 would decide the NL East. Instead, the Phillies wrapped up division title No. 3 thanks to a clutch three-run homer from Greg Luzinski in the sixth inning.

The game started rather inauspiciously, too. Willie Stargell hit a grand slam in the first inning to give the Pirates the quick lead, but pitcher Randy Lerch made up for his pitching with a homer in the second and another in the fourth to cut the deficit to a run and set the table for Luzinski’s homer.

The game was not without drama at the end, either. Tug McGraw game on in the seventh and was within two outs of closing it out until the Pirates rallied for four runs and had the tying run at the plate when manager Danny Ozark went to Ron Reed to close it out.

1977
Game 157 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 27)

Box score

I don’t remember this one, but from a look at the box score it looks like one of those old fashioned Wrigley Field games that used to be unique. Now those Wrigley Field games can break out anywhere in any ballpark. And since they play mostly night games at Wrigley these days, those wild games are a thing of the past.

Still, the second clincher for the Phillies featured five RBIs and a homer (and seven solid innings for the win) from Larry Christenson and one from Mike Schmidt in a 15-9 final.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 1976
Game 155 vs. Montreal at Parc Jarry (Sept. 26)

Box score

The was the first and maybe the best of the Phillies clubs that won all those division titles. The Phils won a franchise-record 101 games, but they didn’t quite match up well enough against The Big Red Machine, who were on their were to becoming the last National League team to win back-to-back World Series titles.

I suppose there is some irony in there somewhere that the Phillies are in the mix to match the 1975-76 Reds… just don’t feel like looking.

Anyway, this clincher was the first game of a doubleheader, highlighted by a complete game from Jim Lonborg. So needless to say the nightcap had a slightly different lineup after the Phillies wrapped up their first playoff berth since 1950. In fact, John Vukovich started in the second game for his season debut. Vuke went on to start in 13 more games over five years for the Phillies – all but three came in 1980.

So there it is… looking forward to adding the new one at the top of this list over the weekend. The good part is the clubhouse in Milwaukee is plenty big enough to find a dry spot from all party shrapnel flying around.

Lidge’s legacy

lidgeATLANTA – When the 2009 season is archived or formatted to some digital data base way in the future, Brad Lidge and the issue of all those blown saves and extraneous runs will be the largest underlying theme. It has to be given how much time we’ve spent talking and writing about it.

Interestingly, all these months later the closer issue has not been resolved. Lidge started blowing saves in earnest in May and kept at it fairly consistently.

Who knows, down the road when we’re looking at the stats on Baseball-Reference or whatever clearinghouse baseball stats are vaulted in, maybe all we will see from Lidge is his save totals. After all, as the closer it is Lidge’s job to save games.

Lidge has 31 saves so far this season after finishing off the Braves in the ninth on Sunday afternoon. In his career, Lidge has saved at least 30 games (with a high of 42) four times in six full seasons. That’s a nice feather in his cap.

Now here’s some historical perspective on Lidge’s 30-plus saves in four seasons: Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge.

That will all change when guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera get voted in. By then 45 saves will be what 30 was in the 1970s. Still, it will be interesting to see how history judges Lidge’s ’09 season. Chances are the legacy will have more to do with how the year ends as opposed as what happened between May and September.

He’s nailed down his last three chances in a row, allowing a run in each one of them, but the end justifies the means when it comes to saving games. In that case, the 31 saves comes with no caveats in Lidge’s case.

Lidge’s legacy

image from fingerfood.typepad.com ATLANTA – When the 2009 season is archived or formatted to some digital data base way in the future, Brad Lidge and the issue of all those blown saves and extraneous runs will be the largest underlying theme. It has to be given how much time we’ve spent talking and writing about it.

Interestingly, all these months later the closer issue has not been resolved. Lidge started blowing saves in earnest in May and kept at it fairly consistently.

Who knows, down the road when we’re looking at the stats on Baseball-Reference or whatever clearinghouse baseball stats are vaulted in, maybe all we will see from Lidge is his save totals. After all, as the closer it is Lidge’s job to save games.

Lidge has 31 saves so far this season after finishing off the Braves in the ninth on Sunday afternoon. In his career, Lidge has saved at least 30 games (with a high of 42) four times in six full seasons. That’s a nice feather in his cap.

Now here’s some historical perspective on Lidge’s 30-plus saves in four seasons: Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge.

That will all change when guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera get voted in. By then 45 saves will be what 30 was in the 1970s. Still, it will be interesting to see how history judges Lidge’s ’09 season. Chances are the legacy will have more to do with how the year ends as opposed as what happened between May and September.

He's nailed down his last three chances in a row, allowing a run in each one of them, but the end justifies the means when it comes to saving games. In that case, the 31 saves comes with no caveats in Lidge's case.

Just Manny being Rickey

image from fingerfood.typepad.com WASHINGTON – I have Brad Lidge fatigue. No, I’m not tired of Brad Lidge. In fact, he’s a great dude. He’s nice, polite, personable, Thoughtful, funny and smart. Generally, those aren’t the best qualities for a closer, but it seemed to work out pretty well last year.

Hey, Lidge might be the only ballplayer in history to pursue an advanced degree in biblical archaeology. Think he and Brett Myers are sitting around discussing that?

Anyway, I have Lidge fatigue because I’m tired of writing about closers, the ninth inning and saves. Lately, it seems like that’s all we do. Charlie Manuel is tired of being asked about it, too, but frankly it’s the news. In the news business, one tends to focus on those types of things.

And apropos of that, I asked Charlie if he’d consider allowing a pitcher to go more than one inning to nail down a save because he labeled himself a “throwback guy.” The answer, of course, was no because with a bullpen thinned out by injuries and Lidge’s struggles. Remember the stretch run in September of 2007 when Manuel rode J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and Brett Myers? If it seemed as if those guys pitched every game in the rush to take the NL East from the Mets it was because they did… practically.

Myers pitched 16 games that September, Gordon pitched 18, and Romero got into 20 games.

Fortunately for Manuel, he has a better starting staff this year so he won’t have to reprise that tact with Myers, Ryan Madson and perhaps Chan Ho Park until Lidge gets it together.

Regardless, the closer/Lidge issues are just filling the time until we start diving the fight for home-field advantage in the NLDS. As it stands now, the Phillies would go to Los Angeles for the first two games of the opening playoffs series while St. Louis would host Colorado. If the Phillies survive that scenario, they would host Colorado but travel to St. Louis for the NLCS opener.

Of course there are still 24 games to go and the Dodgers’ starting pitchers are struggling. Undoubtedly the Phillies would not want to trade their Lidge problems for ones with a starter.

Anyway, to put the Lidge (and playoff seeding) chatter on hold for a bit, I picked up a funny little blog post sent from a friend about the Dodgers, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome.

Apparently, according to the post, Manny has no idea who Jim Thome is. Never mind the fact that Thome and Manny were teammates for 10 years in Cleveland.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Conjuring the famous and debunked story about Rickey Henderson and John Olerud in which Rickey was said to explain to Olerud when both players were on the Mariners that he once was teammates with a guy who wore a helmet in the field with the Mets.

“Yeah, that was me, Rickey,” Olerud said in the myth.

So now we have Manny, who according to the author of Diamond Hoggers, just couldn’t figure out who the hell some guy named Jim Thome was.

To wit:

This comes from a guy we know who works in the Dodgers organization. He wrote us an e-mail because he thought the story would please us. He was right.

Hey fellas,Hope all is well. Had a story for you that you might find kind of funny and that might go well on your site. Just leave my name out of it. So here goes:Alright so we all know that Jim Thome was traded to the Dodgers at the end of August, reuniting him with Ramirez after all those years in Cleveland. That’s all fine and dandy and all, but get this….. hours before the trade is made official news to the media one of the clubhouse coaches goes over to Manny and says “hey we’re bringing Jim Thome back here to play with you”. Ramirez looks at him, stares off into the distance for a few minutes. Our coach starts to realize that either Manny isn’t happy or he’s got no fucking clue what is going on. Our coach couldn’t believe it was that though, since they played together for almost 10 years in Cleveland. Finally our coach says “Manny aren’t you happy about Jim coming to LA?”Ramirez looks him dead in the eye and says “I’ve never played with anyone named Jim.” Gets up, and walks away. No [bleep]. Our coach left it at that.


Wonder if that coach is a certain ex-Phillies manager?

Nevertheless, add this to the absent-minded legend that is Manny Ramirez. Or add it to the pile of Manny stories that Manuel likes to tell from their days in the Indians’ organization. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Manny to show up at the ballpark with no money to pay for a taxi, no suitcase for a road trip or equipment.

Call him Manny Gump – the baseball hitting savant.

Or just call this episode a case of Manny being Rickey.

Coloring outside of the lines

image from fingerfood.typepad.com WASHINGTON – Most folks who follow the posts on this page have already grasped the concept that I am a fan of baseball from the 1970s. I think there are about 50 3,000-word essays about the subject all over this jawn.

Some are about Reggie Jackson’s swing, Mickey Rivers’ love of handicapping horses, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, the fact that Steve Carlton did everyone a favor by not talking to the press, and of course the dervish that is Larry Bowa.

But lately, the waxing on here has been about the relief pitcher of the 1970s, particularly end-of-the game types like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and (of course) Rollie Fingers. All three of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame and all three blew saves like crazy.

But aside from the romanticism applied to the era of my childhood, I also have a bit of a crush on the way the game was played back then. For one thing the thinking wasn’t as compartmentalized as it is now. People didn’t treat baseball strategy as if it were some sort of scientific dissertation with statistics, or worse, like baseball was played as if it were football with the division of labor, constant meetings and basic boringness.

For instance, a pitcher named Will McEnaney was on the mound to close out the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1975 World Series – that series was regarded by some to be one of the greatest World Series ever played. But have you ever heard of Will McEnaney? The chances are that you never heard that name in your life (unless you are a baseball geek of the highest order) simply because McEnaney saved exactly 32 games in his six-year career, including that one in seventh game of the ’75 World Series.

The thing about that was McEnaney didn’t even lead the ’75 Reds in saves. Rawly Eastwick led the team and the league with 22 saves that year, but manager Sparky Anderson needed his “closer” in five other games in the series and for two others in the three-game NLCS.

In other words, ol’ Sparky Anderson went with the best guy he had at the time. That simply was the norm back then. If a team needed a big out in the seventh inning, it wasn’t uncommon for “the closer” to come into the game. It also wasn’t uncommon for the so-called closer to finish up from the seventh inning on. But if that guy got into trouble there were always a few pitchers like Will McEnaney ready to mop up in the ninth.

This evening I was discussing the very subject with Gary Matthews and mentioned how many four-inning saves Gossage used to get – especially in the final months of the season. Matthews said he remembered facing The Goose in those days and used to complain that "it's not time for him yet."

Hell, back then the hitters didn't want to have to face the closer any more than they had to, but these days they only get an inning.

So what does this have to do with Charlie Manuel and Brad Lidge?

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Well… everything and here’s why…

Unlike football, Manuel does not have to label his “closer” before the game as if he were the quarterback or backup or whatever. Labeling a guy a set-up man or a closer and having such hard and fast defined roles is part of that compartmentalized thinking that is so maddening. Maybe the labels and defined roles help folks understand the game better? Maybe the game has been so crunched down and beaten up by statistical analysis that there has to be a signaling of roles for everyone involved. If someone isn't a closer or a set-up man, what is he?

"We called them relief pitchers," Sarge told me.

Manuel is a victim of this thinking, too. Clearly it drives him nuts because Charlie came from the 1970s. He played under managers like Bill Rigney, Billy Martin and Walter Alston. Those were the days when it was OK to color outside of the lines, so to speak. That was the era when the closer changed from game-to-game just like the starting pitcher.

But really, if you really want to know who Manuel’s “closer” will be from here on out, follow one of his old idioms: “Watch the game.”

If you watch the game and see Brad Lidge or Ryan Madson or Brett Myers get the last out of the game, that just might be your closer. Oh sure, he might say Lidge is guy with the label of “closer” just to make easier for everyone to understand, but actions speak louder than words.

Here’s what Charlie says:

“When I tell you he's my closer, I don't tell lies. I don't like to go back on nothing. But the team and the game is bigger than my heart and it's bigger than anything else, if you want to know the truth. Winning a game is what it's all about. It's baseball and why I manage and it's what comes first.”

That means, “watch the game.” Just because a guy is called the “closer,” doesn’t mean he has to be the last pitcher of the game. It also stands to reason that the Phillies' closer hasn't stepped forward yet. Think back to a few World Series winners this decade and you will find championship teams whose closer did not emerge until the last month of the season. There was Francisco Rodriguez setting up in 2002 for the Angels, Bobby Jenks closing games for the White Sox in 2005 and Adam Wainwright stepping up to do the same for the Cardinals in 2006.

Maybe the Phillies are just like those teams?

This ain’t football, folks.

Looking at the blown save redux

image from fingerfood.typepad.com No one has to look at the stats or old game logs to know baseball is a much different game now than it was just 25 years ago. Just look at the innings pitched stats of the pitchers to learn all you need to know.

Yes, the game has changed. Just look at the way folks are reacting to Brad Lidge’s 10 blown saves this year as exhibit A. Of those 10, including the one the Phillies’ closer snapped from the jaws of victory on Saturday night in Houston, five were walk-off jobs and four came after he retired the first hitter of the inning.

But here’s something for you… of the handful of pitchers with the record for most blown saves in a season (14), two of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. Yes, Bruce Sutter had 14 blown saves in 1978 only to come back to win the Cy Young Award in 1979 with 10 more blown saves.

Yes, that’s right. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter from Donegal High School in Lancaster County, Pa. had 24 blown saves in two seasons and took home a Cy Young Award.

Of course Sutter didn’t always pitch just one inning to get his saves, which is where the huge difference lies. Of those 24 blown saves, Sutter coughed up nine of them in outings of two innings of more. In fact Sutter took a blown save in one game where he pitched five innings.

When was the last time Brad Lidge went more than three outs to get a save? Try July 6, 2006.

No, closers aren’t asked to do too much these days, which is probably why the blown save stands out so much. The game is so defined by roles and managerial moves so compartmentalized and beholden to statistical data that there is much more pressure on everyone. If the manager deviates from the norm he is questioned and if the closer can’t walk that tight rope night after night without tripping up, people call for his head.

One inning to define failure or success.

Only a handful of relief pitchers won the Cy Young Award and even fewer were awarded the MVP. One of the guys who got both in the same season was Rollie Fingers who helped pitch the Milwaukee Brewers into the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season. However, in just 47 appearances and 34 save chances, Fingers nailed down just 28.

Of course he pitched 78 innings and had a 1.04 ERA, which means the nine runs he allowed that season led to those eight blown saves.

There are more examples, too. Remember when Steve Bedrosian was saving games every time he came into a game for the Phillies in 1987? Yeah, well he blew eight of his 48 chances, too, and still got the Cy Young Award.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com In 1974 Mike Marshall of the Dodgers won the Cy Young Award even though he had 21 saves in 33 chances. Yes, that’s right… that’s 12 blown saves. Of course he appeared in 106 games and racked up over 200 innings all in relief.

Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young for the Yankees in 1977 and there was a lot of talk about how relievers weren’t worthy of such an honor. After all, Lyle had just 26 saves and 13 wins with eight blown saves. Of course he finished 60 games and averaged nearly two innings per outing, so he kept busy.

My favorite of all workhorse closers is Goose Gossage who was charged with 10 blown saves in 36 chances in 1977 in his only season in Pittsburgh. That season Goose picked up 16 saves when he pitched more than two innings, including four of three innings or longer and one four inning save.

Goose also had blown saves of four and five innings each in 1977. That’s nothing compared to Goose’s first year with the Yankees where he took two blown saves in a seven-inning outings and had five blown saves when he pitched three innings or longer.

Only 10 of Goose’s saves were three-inning jobs in 1978.

Lidge, on the other hand, has appeared in 57 games this season but only accumulated 50 1/3 innings. The last time he pitched more than an inning was late in the 2007 season when he got ahem a blown save.

Still, I have talked to closers about going more than one inning in save situations and even brought up Gossage’s efforts in 1977 and 1978 and they usually look at me like I have two heads. Only Brett Myers seemed interested in coming in before the ninth inning for a save chance, but that was when he was healthy.

No, I’m not saying stretching out the closer by asking him to do more work is the answer. In fact, it’s clear the modern day pitcher can’t handle the work load that the relievers of a generation ago piled on. But I am saying there is much more pressure on guys like Lidge these days. The fact that closers have absolutely no wiggle room at all makes Lidge’s 2008 season that much more impressive.

Moreover, closers like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman walked that precarious ledge for decades and somehow have come out on the other end lauded as the best ever at the role.

Yeah, the current-day closer has more pressure and is expected to be practically robotic, but there’s something cool about the best reliever coming into a game in the seventh inning and throwing heat to every hitter in the lineup.

It was a simpler game back then – for better or worse.

Ain’t it so cool?

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Hang around the ballpark everyday and you get to see and hear some really cool things from time to time. Hell, even the mundane is cool for baseball geeks like me. Still, the past couple of days have been a veritable treasure trove of coolness.

For instance, take the scene in the empty clubhouse after the Phillies’ 3-2 victory over the Braves last night. Though the Phillies continued their maddening insistence on leaving the bases loaded with no outs while also leaving men standing on second and third bases with less than two outs, they were able to pull out the victory because they paid attention to the details.

Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley made nice plays in the field; Pedro Feliz – with a cue from Charlie Manuel – laid down a timely and effective bunt; Scott Eyre appeared in a game for the first time in two weeks and got three outs against two hitters; and, of course, Brad Lidge closed out the game with a perfect ninth.

The Phillies may not be scoring runs without the aid of homers and errors, but they are doing the other things well. Exhibit A in this was pointed out by Mike Sielski (shameless plug for Mike – Buy His Book!) in the clubhouse long after most of the media took off. According to Mike, Jimmy Rollins currently has the best fielding percentage by a shortstop in the history of the game.

Yes, it’s true. With just three errors in 483 and 123 games, Rollins’ fielding percentage is .994. In 1990, Cal Ripken had a .996 fielding percentage, but a few more chances (Ripken had 680 in 1990) Rollins could be right there.

Anyway, the cool part took place a few minutes earlier when Brad Lidge walked into the room. Still basking in the positive vibes after a 1-2-3 ninth for his 27th save, Lidge walked into the room and immediately heard a few cheers and good wishes from Pedro Martinez. Pedro was all smiles and cracking jokes, of course. That’s just the way he is. But the next thing you knew, Lidge and Pedro were standing in the middle of the room pantomiming pitching deliveries and talking shop.

Think about that for a second… the closer who put together one of the best seasons ever for a modern-day reliever and the pitcher who had a string of the greatest seasons… well, ever, were standing just a few feet away talking about fastball motions.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com How cool was that? It was like watching two great scientists comparing notes in the lab.

Speaking of great scientists, Joe Posnanski’s book on the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds comes out in the next two weeks. It’s called, rightfully, The Machine. Frankly, I can’t wait to read it because Posnanski is a great writer and because I love that era of baseball. That’s when I first learned about the game and those guys from the ‘70s – Reggie, Rose, Johnny Bench, Schmidt, Seaver, Carlton, etc. – were my first heroes…

And then when I got older I met them. Yikes.

Anyway, part of the book was excerpted in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated and a particular passage about Johnny Bench caught my eye.

Check it out:

Baseball stardom, however, was not enough. As his fame and numbers grew, Johnny sang in nightclubs. He went to Vietnam with Bob Hope. He hosted his own television show. He became friends with stars, like the singer Bobby Goldsboro, who hit it big in 1968, during Bench's rookie year, with a song called Honey. He dated models and a Playboy centerfold. He was 27 years old, and he had everything. And then, on this April afternoon in Cincinnati, everything changed. Fifth inning, scoreless game, San Francisco's Chris Speier singled to leftfield with runner Gary Matthews on second base. Johnny stood at home plate and waited for Rose, who was playing left, to get the ball and throw it home. Pete did not have a strong arm. The ball slowly made its way to the plate, and so did Matthews, who was 6' 3", weighed about 190 pounds and was called Sarge. Johnny could see that the baseball and Sarge were going to get to the plate at almost the same time. He wanted to catch the ball, get out of the way and tag Matthews as he rushed by — nobody pulled that bullfighter maneuver better than Bench. But he did not have time. Instead, he stood in front of the plate, and he leaned forward to catch the ball, and he tried to protect himself. Sarge crashed into Johnny and sent him flying backward.

That's when Johnny Bench felt a sharp and biting pain deep inside his left shoulder. He groaned. Then he got up — nobody, not even the people who hated Johnny Bench, ever questioned his toughness. He stayed in the game. He waited for the pain to go away. Only it did not go away. And what Johnny Bench did not know that day in Cincinnati is that the pain would subside a little, but it would not go away. He would play the rest of the 1975 season in agony.

I was a kid when Johnny Bench was the best catcher ever to play the game. Sure, back then we knew he was good, but we didn’t know how good. We were just kids and figured Johnny Bench was the norm. We didn’t know he was an innovator and trendsetter. We just thought he was the standard-issue All-Star catcher whose signature was on Rawlings catchers mitts (I still have one). He also hosted “The Baseball Bunch,” and he batted cleanup for the fearsome Reds when catchers never batted cleanup.

Basically, in the late 1970s Johnny Bench was the man.

But Sarge… who doesn’t love Sarge? He’s funny, engaging, loves to laugh and needle Wheels, and he knows the President – personally. The President calls him “Sarge,” too.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com So when I saw Sarge the other day I told him about Posnanski’s book, the passage and if he remembered the game in 1975 where he had to knock Johnny Bench on his ass.

“Yeah, I remember it,” he said in a “hell yeah!” tone. “We had to have a few words after it.”

Chances are those words were pretty good, but when told that it sounded as if Bench wanted to pull a little olé! Move on him on that play nearly 35 years ago, Sarge told about how he rounded third base, saw Bench getting into position and knew, “there wasn’t going to be no olé-ing,” Sarge said with a smile before going on to explain how tough Bench was.

Come on… how bad can the days be when you get to hear story from Sarge about decking Johnny Bench? Not bad at all.

So yeah, hang around long enough and you get to see and hear some cool things. Actually, even the mundane is pretty cool.

The impact of the blown save

image from fingerfood.typepad.com PITTSBURGH – Figuring out how to get those final three outs in the ninth inning of a ballgame is one of those great mysteries of baseball. For some reason the final inning is that much more difficult than the eight that precede it that there needs to be a specialist earmarked specifically to pitch that one inning.

Moreover, ballplayers buy into the mysteries of the ninth inning. They say things like, “Oh yeah, he has closers stuff, but to actually be a closer is a different beast.”

The word they use a lot is “mindset.” Anytime that word gets thrown out there chances are no one has a real explanation.

But that’s not to disparage the poor baseball man attempting to answer an unanswerable question about pitching the ninth inning. That one inning, as sometime closer Ryan Madson said, is “magnified.”

Of course the last inning is magnified because it's the only one the closer pitches in. Back in the 1970s when Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter were going two to three innings (and sometimes even four innings) to nail down a game, the blown save meant a lot less. That's why several of the all-time leaders in blown saves in a season are in the Hall of Fame.

Still, the ninth inning is Machiavellian in the truest sense. It doesn’t matter how Brad Lidge saved 48 straight games last season, it just matters that he did it. Just the same as it matter that this year he isn’t doing it as well.

Last season the Phillies pitchers had 15 blown saves with Chad Durbin leading the way with six. Of those 15 blown save chances, zero came in the ninth inning and nary a one came from the closer or that day’s closer. As a result, the Phillies’ save percentage of 76 was 14 percentage points better than the league norm.

This year the Phillies already have 18 blown saves, including one in back-to-back games against the lowly Pirates here in Pittsburgh. Of those 18, 14 have come from Lidge and Madson and 12 of those have come in the ninth inning.

Nevertheless, with 38 games to go there is a chance that the Phillies could surpass last season’s save tally of 47. What’s more, the Phillies have actually won five of the games in which there was a blown save. In fact, the team has come back and won three games that Lidge got a blown save.

That says more about the Phillies offense and resiliency more than anything.

So maybe in a sense the Phillies have merely blown 10 save chances this year? I know that’s not the proper formula and minimizes the impact of the blown save chance, but it is worth thinking about where these Phillies might be if Lidge can get it together for the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Lidge has been on the mound for four walk-off jobs this season. I’m not sure if I can recall an instance of one walk-off piece against the Phillies last season at all.

If at first…

lidgeStatistics rarely tell the entire story, but in the instance of Brad Lidge and his difficulty in closing out games, maybe the statistics tell some of the story.

Sure, Lidge has blown more saves than any other reliever in the Majors and has the worst ERA (7.27) amongst all relievers, too. But that doesn’t explain why he got so bad so quickly.

Lidge and the Phillies claim that he is not hurt. In fact, after  blown saves last week in Chicago and Saturday in Atlanta the closer maintained that he feels really good when he throws his pitches.

So maybe we can look no further than the first hitter Lidge faces when he gets into a game? Lidge has been in 48 games so far this season and in 17 of them he allowed the first hitter he faced to reach base.

Here’s the thing — in those 17 games Lidge has allowed 25 earned runs in 14 innings for four blown saves. That comes to an ERA of 16.07.

That just might be the problem.

Here’s why — in the 31 games in which Lidge retired the first batter he faced, he went on to allow 10 runs in 29 1/3 innings, which comes to a 3.07 ERA. Better yet, Lidge has saved 18 games in 22 chances when he retires the first hitter he faces.

Yes, that first hitter is the best indicator to determine whether it’s going to be a good or bad night for Lidge and the Phillies.

Then again, what good are the numbers when Jose Mesa is the all-time leader in saves for the Phillies?

If at first…

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Statistics rarely tell the entire story, but in the instance of Brad Lidge and his difficulty in closing out games, maybe the statistics tell some of the story.

Sure, Lidge has blown more saves than any other reliever in the Majors and has the worst ERA (7.27) amongst all relievers, too. But that doesn't explain why he got so bad so quickly.

Lidge and the Phillies claim that he is not hurt. In fact, after  blown saves last week in Chicago and Saturday in Atlanta the closer maintained that he feels really good when he throws his pitches.

So maybe we can look no further than the first hitter Lidge faces when he gets into a game? Lidge has been in 48 games so far this season and in 17 of them he allowed the first hitter he faced to reach base.

Here's the thing — in those 17 games Lidge has allowed 25 earned runs in 14 innings for four blown saves. That comes to an ERA of 16.07.

That just might be the problem.

Here's why — in the 31 games in which Lidge retired the first batter he faced, he went on to allow 10 runs in 29 1/3 innings, which comes to a 3.07 ERA. Better yet, Lidge has saved 18 games in 22 chances when he retires the first hitter he faces.

Yes, that first hitter is the best indicator to determine whether it's going to be a good or bad night for Lidge and the Phillies.

Then again, what good are the numbers when Jose Mesa is the all-time leader in saves for the Phillies?

Big time in the big city

image from fingerfood.typepad.com As far as divisional series in June goes, the Phillies’ three-game stand in New York City against the Mets is pretty big. The Phillies, of course, have a three-game lead in the NL East while the Mets are doing what they can to hang on in the wake.

With all the injuries and typical drama that plagues the New York teams, the Mets aren’t doing all that badly. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the Phillies overcame a six-game lead in late September of 2007 to win the division by a game.

Besides, the Mets don’t flop until the end of the season.

Nevertheless, despite the key injuries to reliever J.J. Putz and overrated shortstop Jose Reyes, things aren’t all that bad for the Mets. Sure, Chipper Jones claimed that third baseman David Wright was complaining about the pitching-friendly dimensions at Citi Field, it could be worse for the Mets. The funny thing about that is Charlie Manuel says back in his day, every stadium was the size of Citi Field.

Hey, it can always be worse.

What the Mets have going for them (of course) is Johan Santana. He’s been as good as the Mets had hoped and has already stuck it to the Phillies once already this season.

Still, if the Phillies can get Brad Lidge and Jimmy Rollins squared away, this race could be over quickly. Oh, they might not say Rollins’ and Lidge’s slumps are concerning, but that can’t be totally accurate… right?

Maybe. After all, despite his 6-for-36 (.167) in his last eight games and demotion out of the leadoff spot for Sunday’s victory in Los Angeles, the Phillies’ offense appears to be potent enough to withstand an extended jag by Jimmy Rollins. That doesn’t mean Charlie Manuel doesn’t need Rollins to start hitting, because he does. The numbers bear that out. When Rollins gets on base and scores, the Phillies win. It’s as simple as that.

Not so simple is the slide by the closer Lidge. Apparently he is making up for lost time on the blown saves front after going a perfect 48-for-48 last season. This year the stats don’t look too great after he blew back-to-back saves last weekend and is 13-for-19 in save opportunities with a 7.27 ERA.

However, Lidge spoiled the Phillies last year because blown saves are inevitable. Just look at Mets’ closer Francisco Rodriguez, who set the Major League record with 62 saves last season. To get those 62, Rodriguez needed 69 chances. In fact, the so-called K-Rod has never blown fewer than four chances a season during his career and though he’s a perfect 15-for-15 this year, his save percentage is just 87 percent. That’s slightly better than Lidge’s career mark, though it is worth noting that K-Rod saved eight games last year in which he didn’t go a full inning.

Moreover, the last time Rodriguez went more than one inning to get a save was July 1, 2007.

Goose Gossage he is not.

Regardless, it should be a pretty interesting showdown in the fancy, new Citi Field (new Yankee Stadium it is not).

Matchups:

Tonight: LHP J.A. Happ (4-0, 2.48) vs. LHP Johan Santana (7-3, 2.00)

Tomorrow: LHP Cole Hamels (4-2, 4.40) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (4-2, 4.85)

Thursday: LHP Jamie Moyer (4-5, 6.27) vs. RHP Tim Redding (0-2, 6.97)

Working on the weekend
The popular sentiment during the weekend was that the Dodgers-Phillies matchup was a preview of this year’s NLCS… sure, sounds right to me.

Nevertheless, if the season were to end today (it doesn’t) the playoff matchups would have the Dodgers hosting the Mets and the Phillies in a rematch against the Brewers in the NLDS.

In the American League the matchups would pit the Yankees against the Tigers and the Red Sox vs. Rangers.

Why mention this? Well, 28 years ago tomorrow playoff spots actually were decided on June 10.  Yep, on this date in 1981, the players went on a two-month strike that did not end until July 31. As a result, the owners decided to split the 1981 season into two halves, with the first-place teams from each half in each division (or a wild card team if the same club won both halves) meeting in a best-of-five divisional playoff series.

It was a terribly flawed system because the Cincinnati Reds finished with the best record but didn’t make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals snuck in with a 50-53 record.

The Phillies also got in thanks to being in first place when the players walked out on June 10. Eventually, they lost in an entertaining five game NLDS series to the Montreal Expos even though the St. Louis Cardinals finished the season with the best record in the NL East.

Weird, wild stuff.

Hittin’ weather

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Crazy day at the old ballyard yesterday. So crazy that I had four different stories written during the game based on the outcome only to scrap them all when Raul Ibanez smacked his grand slam and when we learned Brad Lidge had an MRI, a cortisone shot AND was taking anti-inflammatory medication.

So yeah, crazy day at the ol' ballpark.

"Good ol' slugfest," Charlie Manuel said.

Charlie calls these early hot days "hittin' weather." He's certainly right about that considering the ball seems to travel a little bit longer when the winds are calm and the temperatures higher at Citizens Bank Park. Ibanez says he noticed the ball carrying well during batting practice earlier on Monday afternoon. But even Ibanez or Manuel would have had difficulty predicting the long shots belted by the Nationals and Phillies.

Not only did two shots clear the center field fence and strike the batter's eye (Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard), but the Nats clubbed two upper deck shots – one to left by Zimmerman and one to right by Nick Johnson – and blasted one onto Ashburn Alley by Elijah Dukes.

Clearly the Nats gained more yards in the air than the Washington football team did all of last season.

Though the Phillies offense seems to be clicking after the two losses to the Brewers late last week and the first part of the Marlins games, Manuel is clearly concerned about the team's pitching. The staff's ERA is far and away the worst in the National League and only the Rangers and Yankees have a worse mark in the Majors.

"Looks to me like they are leaving pitches out over the good part of the plate," Manuel said when asked about his staff's troubles.

And by good he meant from a hitter's perspective.

At this point it seems as if the manager has little flexibility in regard to his staff. J.C. Romero is still serving his suspension (he has 32 games to go), Lidge might have a DL stint coming and the starters aren't giving the relievers too many breaks. So far the Phillies are fifth in the league for innings by relievers and 14th in innings pitched by starters.

Unlike with hitters, Manuel can't sit pitchers when they struggle. In fact, it might be the exact opposite – if a pitcher is struggling the manager might opt to get him more work.

You know, depending on the circumstance.

Surely the pitching will be a topic to rear its head again soon…

*
Not messing around…
Speaking of J.C. Romero, the suspended reliever is not messing around with his law suit against the makers of the supplement 6-OXO Extreme as well as the retailers that sell the product. How so? Consider that he has Howard Jacobs as one of his attorneys.

Yes, that Howard Jacobs.

For anyone who follows cycling, track or doping cases, Howard Jacobs is the go-to name in law. It seems as if he has represented everyone from Tyler Hamilton to Floyd Landis to Marian Jones. If there is one lawyer who knows about the ins and outs of doping tests and drugs in sports, it's Jacobs.

Better yet, Jacobs was a competitive triathlete so he understands all of the aspects of doping and athlete's rights.

The presence of Jacobs on Romero's legal team as well as thoughts from several attorneys weighing in on the case indicates that the pitcher has a strong case.

Still, one lawyer said if the supplement company advertised its product as something that complies with the MLB testing regimen, then yeah, Romero has a case. Otherwise, he might be losing even more cash.

Lidge signed for 3 more years

After a spate of surprising moves made by the Phillies this week, one has to wonder if there is more coming. Could a big trade be looming on the horizon? With the team in first place in the National League East and the team’s brass on the record indicating that they would like to bolster its pitching staff, it’s a fair assumption.

That assumption is greatly enhanced by the developments this week.

It started on Tuesday when the club announced that it had coaxed maligned Opening Day starting pitcher Brett Myers to accept an option to Triple-A Lehigh Valley in order to iron out his difficulties on and off the mound. A season removed from working as the team’s closer, Myers struggled with the transition back to a starting role in 2008. In 17 big-league outings, Myers was 3-9 with a 5.84 ERA and had allowed a Major League-leading 24 home runs.

Upon accepting the… ahem… mental rehab trip to the minors, Myers told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he preferred pitching out of the bullpen and saw a future as a big-league closer.

“I want to be great, and honestly, I realized last year that I’d only be a good starter,” Myers told the Inquirer. “I felt like I had rock-star status as a closer. I enjoyed the bullpen. I felt like they liked me in that role. But it was easier to get a closer than another starter. (Closer Brad) Lidge has done a hell of a job for us. I don’t think I could do better.”

Based on the developments on Sunday morning, the Phillies don’t think Myers could (or can) do better, either. As a result, general manager Pat Gillick announced that the club had agreed to a three-year contract extension with Brad Lidge worth $37.5 million. The deal lasts through the 2011 season with a club option for 2012 plus a few performance incentives and bonuses thrown in.

So if Myers is going to pitch for the Phillies in the future, it won’t be as the team’s closer. Yet then again, the Phillies did sign Myers to a three-year deal worth $25.75 million before last season to be a starter.

Clearly, the Phillies were serious about that.

“People have drawn the conclusion that he would rather close, and that may be the case, but let me put it this way: There’s a lot of things in life that a lot of people don’t want to do. But you’re getting paid, and you’ve got to show up for work and do the best job you can,” Gillick told reporters on Sunday morning. “He’s a gamer, and I think he’ll give 100 percent whether he’s in a closer situation or as a starter.”

Frankly, Gillick and the Phillies need Myers to start.

“We’re kind of stubborn. We think that Brett can start,” Gillick said. “We don’t see reason he can’t start. If he gets his mechanical issues straightened out down there, I don’t see any reason he can’t be in our starting rotation.”

Myers began his minor-league stint last Wednesday in Allentown for Triple-A Lehigh Valley where he allowed three runs and five hits with six strikeouts in five innings against the Yankees top Triple-A club, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The big right-hander will make his second start in Allentown on Monday against Louisville and Reds’ top pitching prospect, Homer Bailey. But whether Myers will be elbowed out of the Phillies’ starting rotation appears to be up in the air, too. Of course if Myers irons out his trouble, which Major League and Minor League coaches say is mechanical and mental, then, yes, the Phillies will have a spot for him.

However, all indications are that the team will had another arm to the rotation. Rumors abound, of course, with names like starters C.C. Sabathia, Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett, Jarrod Washburn, Greg Maddux, Bronson Arroyo and Randy Wolf, as well as reliever Brian Fuentes linked to a potential trade with the Phillies. Moreover, advance scouts from the Twins (Dennys Reyes? Livan Hernandez?) and Mariners have been watching the Phillies closely during the past week.

Yes, the future will be interesting for the Phillies.

While Myers’ place in the Phillies future is the great unknown, Lidge, 31, the closer acquired from Houston for Geoff Geary, Mike Costanzo and Michael Bourn last winter, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Though he could have tested a very lucrative free-agent market this winter, Lidge figured that all things being equal, he’d rather be in Philadelphia.

“Coming into the year, I knew that this was my free-agent year, but pretty early on, I started really enjoying everything here,” Lidge said. “I understand what [free agency] could be like, but for me, this is an easy decision. I’m enjoying everything so much here. I don’t know where I could go that would have a team with a better opportunity to get to the World Series, to win a World Series. For me, that’s the most important thing, so where better than Philadelphia.”

The Phillies appear to have gotten a relative bargain with Lidge, too. During the past three winters, Billy Wagner signed a four-year, $43 million contract with the Mets; B.J. Ryan signed a five-year, $47 million deal with the Blue Jays; and Francisco Cordero signed a four-year, $46 million contract with Texas last winter.

Based on Lidge’s statistics so far (19 saves in 19 chances, an 0.77 ERA in 35 games and 47 strikeouts in 35 innings) he could have earned a fatter paycheck if he played the market.

The Phillies, obviously, went going to let it come to that.

“Right out of the chute, when we made the trade, we knew this wasn’t going to be a one-and-done type of guy,” assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in announcing the deal on Sunday morning. “We view Brad as somebody who can help us contend for many years. We all know how important it is to close out games you should win. This is an important piece to our organization’s future.”

Interestingly, Lidge has thrived in Philadelphia after a rough ending to his time in Houston. Between a few injuries and a crushing home run allowed to Albert Pujols during the 2005 NLCS, Lidge struggled with effectiveness and his confidence in his last year with the Astros. But during the second half of the 2007 season, Lidge regained what was missing and has reestablished himself as one of the best closers in the Majors.

The fact that some hitters say his slider is the nastiest pitch in the game certainly helps, too.

Nevertheless, Lidge has found himself with the Phillies.

“I think if you’re closing and you’re going through a rough time, it’s difficult no matter where you’re at,” the newly named All-Star said. “I was really excited for this challenge. For whatever reason, coming in here, I felt like this was where I needed to be. I enjoy the fact that the fans here are so passionate about the game. That gives me a lot of energy. I love it here.”

And Philadelphia loves him back… so far.

Next, is a deal for Pat Burrell in the works?

Stay tuned.

Coming up: The team that loved Tom Gordon and even more from the Olympic Trials.

Lidge on the mark

Brad LidgeWhile everyone is all lathered up about the season Chase Utley is putting together (and rightly so), closer Brad Lidge is quietly putting together a fantastic season.

Better yet, Lidge is well on his way to having the best season by a closer in franchise history. With 17 saves in as many chances, Lidge is on pace to nail down 42 games this season, though he could threaten the club record of 45 set by Jose Mesa in 2002.

More important than saves, Lidge has allowed just three runs in 28 innings (28 games) for a 0.96 ERA with 35 strikeouts. Using his fastball to set up a slider that is nearly unhittable, Lidge should be headed to the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium with Utley next month. Better yet, he appears to be the perfect anchor to the team’s top-rated bullpen.

Interestingly, the years spent pitching in the cozy ballpark in Houston (whatever corporate monolith tagged its name on it this week) has served Lidge well. That’s because in the broom closet known as Citizens Bank Park, Lidge has allowed just two earned runs in 14 games.

But the big question is how much longer Lidge will The Man in the Phillies’ bullpen. Acquired in the deal that sent Geoff Geary and Michael Bourn to Houston, Lidge earns $6.35 million in salary this season and could be set for a big payday heading into a winter of free agency. Just 31-years old with a few not-so serious injuries behind him, including knee surgery that caused him to miss some of spring training as well as the first week of the regular season, Lidge is coming into his athletic prime.

But whether or not he will serve those prime years with the Phillies remains to be seen.

Lidge’s agent Rex Gary told Comcast SportsNet on Wednesday afternoon that he would not comment on whether or not he and the Phillies have held discussions for a long-term deal for Lidge.

However, Gary told CSN that “Brad really enjoys it here. He and his wife Lindsay really like Philadelphia and Brad really enjoys his teammates.”

So there’s that.

Now if the Phillies can just figure out a remedy for Brett Myers, acquire another starter for the stretch run and nail down a contract with Lidge for the next two or three years, that would be something.

It fits!

Brad LidgeJust one time I’d like to see a player try on a jersey that doesn’t fit during those ceremonial press conferences for newly signed players. Like say for instance the Phillies signed Barry Bonds and trotted him out with the whole jersey thing, but when he tries to slip his arms in it goes nowhere because it’s one of Jimmy Rollins’ shirts.

That would be funny to me.

The Phillies did their little dog-and-pony show with Brad Lidge yesterday where they made him fly to Philadelphia to answer a few questions and try on a shirt. Then maybe he had dinner, watched a little TV in the hotel before flying back home. Apparently everything fit and checked out fine for Lidge and the Phillies. The shirt looked good.

While all of that was going on in Philadelphia, the Yankees and Alex Rodriguez (sans agent Scott Boras) were working on a new deal that would give him a small percentage of a raise and bonuses for breaking records (more on that in a moment). Apparently, A-Rod and the Yanks are just crossing the Is and dotting the Ts on a 10-year contract. Rodriguez, of course, is the player that opted out the last three years of his current deal that was paying him more than $25 million for a shade more than 162 games. It’s just a shade more than 162 games because unlike ex-Yankee third basemen like Charlie Hayes, Scott Brosius or Graig Nettles, A-Rod has never made it to the World Series.

Better yet, any person who willingly opts out of a contract in excess of $25 million for 180 days of work is an [bleep]hole. I wish I could be a little more graceful, but I can’t. Seriously. Worse, there will be people going on and on about how A-Rod did the right thing because he got more money and more years by opting out… yeah, well, so. Does that much money matter anymore or is just about his ego? It’s kind of like the time we were all together talking about the shoddy work of a well-paid media type when someone butted in with a, “Yeah, but he’s making six-figures…” You know, as if that were impressive enough to change opinion. After a second or so, someone countered with, “Yeah, he might make six-figures but he’s still a bleeping hack.”

In other words, A-Rod might make all the money in the world but he still hasn’t played an inning of a World Series game.

But one of the more interesting elements of A-Rod’s new contract is that he will get a hefty bonus if he breaks the all-time home run record. Actually, according to Big Stein’s son, Li’l Hanky Steinbrenner, the Yankees are working on a “marketing plan” for A-Rod’s climb up the all-time charts.

“These are not incentive bonuses,” Steinbrenner said. “For lack of a better term, they really are historic-achievement bonuses. It’s a horse of a different color.”

But the color is still green. And here’s the thing – whose home run record does A-Rod have to break to get his horse? Will Major League Baseball still consider Barry Bonds the Sultan of Shots or will he get the big historical asterisk next to his name after yesterday’s indictment came down at around the time Lidge was trying on a shirt?

And we all know the Feds never get indictments for cases they could lose. They like to make it look like the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals…

Perhaps more interestingly, Bonds’ federal indictment for lying to a grand jury comes after commissioner Bud Selig announced that MLB’s revenues crossed over $6 billion. And, a day after The Washington Post offered readers a front-page story in which leaders in the anti-doping movement are convinced that getting indictments and launching investigations is a better tact than spending money to develop full-proof drug tests.

It looks like they got a really big fish.

More: The Bonds indictment (pdf)

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.