‘The Closer’ in name only

Brad LidgeMILWAUKEE – There’s a line from Elaine Benes in a Seinfeld episode where in chiding Jerry for speculating on woman’s assumed enhancement, she drops an all-timer on him:

“You know, just when I think you’re the shallowest man I know, you somehow manage to drain a little bit more out of the pool.”

The great thing about the line is it can be used in nearly any circumstance. So last night when watching Brad Lidge flounder through five hitters for his 11th blown save of the season, a derivation of that sentence immediately came to mind.

Just when you thought he couldn’t get any lower, he somehow managed to drain a little more out of the pool.

Nope, it’s not easy being Brad Lidge these days, especially since the playoffs are quickly approaching and his pitching and the results therein do not look any different from where we were in May. Yeah, Lidge has saved 31 games, which is pretty good considering he has blown those 11 attempts AND spent 19 days on the disabled list.

However, even with that time off Lidge has somehow managed to get into 63 games. That’s a lot considering he got into 72 games last year and barely missed any time at all.

Now here’s the thing about those 63 games… it’s a threshold number. In fact, according to the always interesting Baseball-Reference blog, of all the pitchers who have appeared in at least 60 games, Lidge has the fourth-worst ERA in Major League Baseball history.

I know what you’re thinking… you’re thinking, “How does a guy with 11 blown saves, an 0-8 record, a 7.48 ERA (10.80 in September and 8.10 in the second half), all while allowing opponents to bat .305 (nearly .400 this month) off of him, get on the playoff roster let alone an entrenched spot in the back of the bullpen.”

Easy. Who else ya got?

There is an easy way to handle the Lidge situation where egos don’t take a beating and the team can win games the way they did last year. After all, something needs to be done because there are 11 games remaining in the season, home-field advantage is on the line, and the Phillies have lost 10 games this year when leading after eight innings.

Talk about demoralizing.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Lidge told the scribes after last night’s debacle. “I’m disappointed. They hit the ball. They did a good job. I’m definitely frustrated, a little bit at a loss. I’m sure there’s stuff I can do better.”

Indeed. Nevertheless, Manuel says he isn’t ready to pull the plug… that’s what he says.

“These are our guys. We’ll stick with him,” Manuel said. “Lidge has to do it. Between him and Madson, they’ve got to get it done. We’re waiting to see how long Brett’s going to be. Right now, Brett’s not even in the picture. We’ve just got to get better.”

This isn’t original, in fact I’ve been trotting it out there for a while now. But when push comes to shove, expect Charlie not to go batter-to-batter and matchup-to-matchup in particularly tight games. He’s done it before to decent results, too. Remember that game in Atlanta during August when Lidge got a one-out save? In that game Manuel used Ryan Madson for a third of an inning, Scott Eyre for two-thirds, and Lidge for the final out.

Of course Charlie had healthy arms back then, which is something he’s missing these days. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if two or three guys end up working in the ninth inning from here on out.

Why not? There are plenty of saves to go around.

Otherwise, perhaps the managerial defined closer role has not been assigned yet. Oh sure, Charlie calls Lidge the closer, but look at the World Series over the last few years and think about how quickly things change.

In 2006, the Cardinals’ Adam Wainright saved four games throughout the postseason and did not allow a run in nine games. It was Wainright, a rookie, who was on the mound when the Cards closed out the World Series in Game 5 over the Tigers. Wainright’s save total in the playoffs was one more than he had in 61 games during the regular season, since Jason Isringhausen was serving as the closer until injuries and 10 blown saves ended his year.

In 2005, another rookie Bobby Jenks took over the ninth inning for the White Sox as they sewed up their first World Series title since 1917. Jenks saved six games during the regular season and five in the playoffs during the White Sox run when manager Ozzie Guillen decided to give the ball to the rookie instead of veteran Dustin Hermanson, who led the club with 34 saves that year.

Ugueth Urbina wasn’t even with the Marlins when the 2003 season started, but he was on the mound at the end. Traded from Texas to Florida in July of ’03, Urbina saved just six games during the regular season for the Marlins, but got two during the World Series upset over the Yankees and two others during the playoffs.

Of course, who can forget K-Rod setting up Troy Percival during the Angels’ victory over the Giants in seven games in 2002? Francisco Rodriguez appeared in just five games for the Angeles during the season, and 11 during the playoffs. Four of those games were in the World Series. Imagine that… a guy pitched in four World Series games and just five regular big league games and did nothing but hang zeroes on the board.

In 18 2/3 innings during the playoffs in ’02, K-Rod notched 28 strikeouts. He had 13 in just 5 2/3 during the regular season.

Call K-Rod the Marty Bystrom of the bullpen.

So it can be done, folks. Just because Lidge is called “the closer” now, doesn’t mean much when the playoffs start. Besides, in 2007 the Rockies made it to the World Series with 29 blown saves during the season. The Phillies aren’t anywhere near that total…

Yet.

Coloring outside of the lines

Will McEnaneyWASHINGTON – 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?

Ryan MadsonWell… 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.

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.

Closing time for Gordon?

There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned freakout/team meeting to get things rolling for Charlie Manuel’s team. Currently riding a season-best three-game winning streak, the Phillies have gone from the worst record in the Majors to the current second-best winning streak in baseball.

Last season, as everyone recalls, Manuel wigged out in the dugout between innings of a game in Florida and the Phillies promptly won nine in a row and 13 of 14. At 7-11, the Phillies are one game behind where they were last season at this time.

So the Phillies – with the wins and hits finally rolling in and three games against the lowly Washington Nationals coming up – are on the way. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Instead, the question now is who is the closer? Does Tom Gordon hold onto the role by default or is it there for Brett Myers to snatch away? Before yesterday’s game Manuel didn’t really clear that up.

Or did he?

“It depends on how quick Brett (Myers) can come along,” Manuel said. “Gordon is our closer and we’re committed to him until Brett becomes better or whatever and we’ll just have to see from there. Gordon still has good stuff. I think the fact he’s gotten hit is the location of the pitches he’s thrown.

“At the same time, we have to get Myers out there in a save situation to see how things go.”

As offered in a previous post, Gordon’s fastball still has its velocity but is struggling with the command with his curve. Plus, at 39, Gordon has a lot of miles on his arm over the last 19 seasons in the Majors. By all accounts Gordon should be able to handle the closer’s role for the foreseeable future though his success will depend on how often he’s used.

Gordon was used pretty heavily last season and responded with an All-Star season until coming up with a tired arm in August. He also missed some time during spring training to have his right arm checked out, which is nothing new. He missed the same amount of time during spring training of 2006 and bounced back fairly well.

Regardless, it appears as if Manuel is going to give Gordon every chance to hold onto the closer’s role. If he can’t do it, well, it appears as if there is a substitute waiting in for the call in the lower bullpen just beyond the center field fence.

“I don’t know if it’s a competition but let me put it this way I hope it’s a good setting for both of them because then we can have a strong bullpen,” Manuel said.