Ryan Madson, the bullpen phone rings for thee

Madson On paper, two years removed, it looked like nothing more than a bad outing for a relief pitcher in a tight, late August game. What made this one particularly bad was that reliever Ryan Madson helped turn a sure win into an ugly defeat with just seven pitches.

August 28, 2008 was the date and the Phillies were six outs away from a win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Madson needed only to get through the eighth inning to hand off a ninth-inning lead to closer Brad Lidge. But those seven pitches resulted in a homer, a double and a single. Instead of giving Lidge a ninth-inning lead, Madson turned it over to Chad Durbin who quickly made the lead vanish.

But it wasn’t the performance that led to Madson’s season-changing moment… a veritable moment of clarity for the pitcher. It was the discussion afterwards with manager Charlie Manuel that turned it all around. Actually, in a discussion there was a give-and-take. In this one there was all give.

“I chewed his ass out,” Manuel said with a wry smile months after the moment and a few hours before Madson pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the clinching game of the NLCS. It must have worked, too, because Madson allowed just one run in the rest of regular season and three during the playoff run.

Of course Madson also worked hard on his shoulder exercises and received regular treatments with a chiropractor to help his fastball climb to 98-mph, which might have more to do with his big-time pitching down the stretch. Then again, every once in a while a guy needs to get chewed out. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it makes a helluva story.

Needless to say, there will not be any of those types of discussions this year. Madson doesn’t need it. Better yet, even though Madson spent a big chunk of the season on the disabled list as a result of a broken toe suffered when he kicked a chair after blowing a save chance in San Francisco[1], he won’t need to have any discussions with anyone about his performance.

“It’s been a perfectly normal year,” Madson said on Wednesday afternoon before the series finale against the Marlins at the Bank.

And that’s a good thing. Normal for Madson means he’s one of the top set-up men in the league, and maybe a guy who could take over as a closer sometime soon. In fact, Madson was Manuel’s closer for the first month of the season while Lidge was on the disabled list, and he finished off Tuesday night’s victory over the Marlins with 1 1/3 innings of work.

When Madson took over in a save situation in Wednesday night’s 10-6 victory, it was his 10th appearance in 13 days. That’s old-school workload. That’s Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage style, or at least the modern day facsimile of it.

“I always thought he could close games, but it’s just a matter of him feeling confident about himself and comfortable and having some success and adjusting to that role,” Manuel said.

“I think he’s getting there. The only way we’ll know is if we send him out there for a season and see if he can hold his own.”

In addition to it being a perfectly normal season, Madson says, “I feel fine” in regards to the work Manuel has piled on him. Based on the numbers, it’s impossible to argue considering he has worked 9 2/3 innings with 12 strikeouts and no earned runs in the last 10 outings.

In fact, Madson has been charged with an earned run in just one game going back to July 29, a span of 25 games. In that time the righty has pitched 25 innings, racked up 36 strikeouts with a win, a save and 10 holds.

But, as pitching coach Rich Dubee eluded, big deal.

“He’s been a big part of our success here. I’m not surprised,” Dubee said. “This is what the guy does.”

That’s not a bad trait to have for a pitcher. Madson gets called on to get outs and comes through without complaint or injury… unless he’s kicking the hell out of a chair. Actually, not only has Madson pitched in 10 games over the last 13 days, but he also has appeared in more games than any pitcher in the big leagues since July 26.

As it looks for the final 21 games of the season, it appears as if the Phillies want be shy about using Madson, either. Dubee says Madson appears to be “fresher” than most of his teammates in the ‘pen largely because of the time spent on the DL, but also because his repertoire of pitches appears to be so “lively.”

Plus, if the way Manuel used his relievers down the stretch in 2007 is any indication, Madson better have enjoyed his rest. With relatively few dependable relievers and a dogfight with the Mets in the NL East, Manuel used Brett Myers, Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero seemingly every game. Actually, Myers appeared in 16 games during September, including 12 of the last 16. Gordon made it into 18 games in the final month, including 13 of the final 16, and Romero got into 20 of the 27 September games and 17 of the final 22.

When the playoffs started, Romero got into every game, while Gordon and Myers appeared in two of the three.

Is that what’s in store for Madson? We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, the veteran right-hander seems to have stepped up his game to a higher level.


[1] Madson’s toe was broken into pieces as a result of his run-in with the chair in San Francisco. So imagine how hard that chair must have been kicked. Certainly each of us has kicked or punched a solid, inanimate object in a fit of anger really, really hard and rarely does it result in an injury, let alone a toe smashed into pieces. Moreover, Madson spent nearly three months on the disabled list with his toe injury… from kicking a chair! Anyone want to guess what the chair looked like afterwards?

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.

When Roy (nearly) fought Larry

Bowa_halladay By 2003, there were plenty of players in the Phillies’ clubhouse who wanted to take a poke at their manager and the pitching coach. Eventually, one pitcher is said to have cold-cocked the pitching coach, but the manager only ever (publicly) started fracases with the opposition.

That manager, of course, was Larry Bowa whose house-divided style of skippering never really caught on. And certainly we’ve seen enough of his act to know how it works. It’s just like clockwork:

• Something happens in the game that wrankles Larry’s delicate sensibilities.
• Larry starts talking trash.
• Benches clear.
• Larry gets behind two or three players/coaches in uniform who, “hold him back.”
• Rinse and repeat.

It was something that was put on display a few times during Bowa’s stint as manager of the Phillies and then, famously, during the 2008 NLCS where as a coach for the Dodgers, Bowa was reported to have been chirping, “You started it!” toward Brett Myers.

Cooler heads prevailed before Davey Lopes could put Bowa over his knee.

Nevertheless, one of Bowa’s better known bench-clearing incidents with the Phillies happened in a spring training game during 2003 at Jack Russell Stadium against the Blue Jays. That was the one where Roy Halladay plunked Jim Thome with a pitch and immediately got an earful from Bowa. By the time Halladay took his turn at the plate, he had heard all he could handle from Bowa and did what most sane people do in those situations…

Try to stick a foot down his throat.

Before he could dig in, Rheal Cormier missed twice while attempting to plunk Halladay. Still that wasn’t enough to stop Bowa from running his mouth. By the sixth inning of the game, Halladay had heard enough and went after the Phillies’ skipper only to be intercepted before he could shove his foot down Bowa’s throat. Bowa, meanwhile, fell back into his old tricks… he talked, postured and talked some more.

Take a look:

Halladay_fight

Bowa_halladay

Madson_bowa

After the game Bowa claimed Halladay intentionally tried to hit Thome—in a Grapefruit League game—and based it on the fact that the Jays’ pitcher has really good control. Ultimately, Bowa was suspended for a game. He later had his revenge, too, when he had rookie Ryan Madson drill a Blue Jays hitter in a Grapefruit League game in 2004.

Halladay, meanwhile, was a bit stunned by the whole thing. He said he told Bowa that he didn't try to hit Thome, but just got cursed at.

"He said a lot of things," Halladay said back in 2003. "But when he finally came close, I said, 'I didn't mean to hit the guy.' And he said, '[bleep!]' and a few other four-letter words."

All that yelling by Bowa was a bit confusing to Halladay.

"I don't understand why anybody would think I'd intentionally hit Jim Thome in that situation," Halladay said. "After all the times I faced him in the American League and never hit him, I can't imagine why they thought I'd intentionally hit him here."

Halladay continued:

"I didn't mean to hit the guy, but I understood why they were upset," Halladay said. "So you take your shots at me. Then it's over and done with. That should have been the end of it. … If he hits me, fine. He tried twice, and he didn't get me. But to come out there screaming and yelling … that was ridiculous."

Bowa was a bit more, um, curt.

"I don't know what he said, to be honest with you, and I really don't give a damn," Bowa relayed from his on-the-field "conversation" with Halladay.

So not only was Halladay a next-door neighbor to the Phillies during spring training at the Jays’ base in Dunedin, but like a lot of the old-time Phillies he also wanted to fight Larry Bowa.

Welcome aboard, Roy!

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.

Not that guy again

When his career is over and he has his lone Cy Young Award and six Cole Hamels Awards in his trophy room (or a cardboard box in the garage), Phillies’ left-hander Cole Hamels could remember the 2007 season as the year he found his footing as a Major Leaguer. But until then Hamels is likely pretty peeved that he blew a two-run lead in the sixth inning of last night’s game against the Florida Marlins.

Worse, Hamels was touched up for a four-run, game-breaking sixth inning against Marlins goofy lefty Scott Olsen, who seems to be despised by opposing ballplayers and sportswriters equally. The players seem to dislike Olsen because he appears to talk an inordinate amount of trash for a rather ordinary player. Writers seem to dislike him because he ruined a few stories with poor pitching during last season’s wild-card chase.

If there is one thing that irks writers more than anything it’s having to rewrite a perfectly good story when deadline is quickly approaching. In that vein, Travis Lee was a killer during the 2001 season. Worse, he was miserable when approached in the clubhouse.

Nevertheless, Hamels could have been adding victory No. 7 to the ledger based on his first five innings of work and the fact that he was facing the combustible Olsen. Certainly seeing that dude on the other side is enough to give the opposition some confidence.

Said Hamels to reporters last night: “I definitely saw that light at the end of the tunnel. I knew I was pitching well enough to pitch another couple innings and get the ball in the hands of Brett. And when Brett has the ball, the game is over. I saw that. I felt it. I know the team definitely saw that, too. Especially when you’re playing against a pitcher that’s not on everybody’s good side. You want to go out there and win as bad as anything, but especially against him.”

If there is a bright side to the loss it’s that Ryan Madson pitched two perfect innings in his return from the disabled list. Madson whiffed two hitters and threw 16 of his 24 pitches for strikes. Certainly adding a healthy Madson back to the bullpen could be a huge lift for the Phillies.

***
It’s worth noting that last year’s first-round draft pick, Kyle Drabek, is pitching well for Single-A Lakewood. In two of his last three starts, the hard-throwing righty has tossed two-hitters through 7 2/3 innings and 7 innings. And in eight starts, Drabek is 4-1 with a 4.04 ERA and has 43 strikeouts in 49 innings. Opponents are hitting just .227 off him.

Meanwhile, struggling first-round pick Greg Golson has shown marked improvement this season. With five hits in his last 10 at-bats for Single-A Clearwater, Golson is up to .295 and is second in the league with 14 stolen bases.

Ovandy Suero, for the Lakewood Tigers, leads the league with 33 stolen bases in 35 games. Yeah, 33 stolen bases in 35 games… what are other teams thinking when he gets on base?

“Uh, guys. I think he might try to steal. Call it a hunch.”

About last night

The Phillies’ bullpen presented a host of plots and sub-plots in the loss to the Astros last night. For one thing, there were a bunch of curiosities regarding Ryan Madson’s stint in the eighth and ninth innings.

Let the second-guessing begin.

To start, it was odd that Madson was instructed to intentionally walk Mike Lamb with one out and a runner on second and Willy Taveras on deck. Yes, first base was open and the intentional walk is the “baseball move” in that situation. But no matter if there were a force at second or not, it would have been very difficult for the Madson or the Phillies to coax a double play out of Taveras. Obviously, Taveras is very quick. His 29 stolen bases, leadoff position in the Astros’ batting order, and recent 30-game hitting streak seem to indicate that.

But what about the fact that Taveras has grounded into just five double plays in 519 plate appearances this season. Or the fact that it took me less than 30 seconds to dig up those numbers on Taveras – surely Charlie and his staff had those digits next to them in the dugout.

Right?

Yet after Madson struck out Craig Biggio for the second out in the ninth, the right-hander’s night should have been over. With switch-hitter Lance Berkman coming up, surely Charlie knew that the Astros’ slugger was hitting .270 against lefties as opposed to .322 against righties… right? Never mind the fact that Madson has a documented weakness against lefties. Following my long drive which left me a bit wired after dodging trucks and construction on the Turnpike, I dug up a little info before I was finally able to sleep. So thinking back on that hanging curve that Madson threw Berkman with two strikes, two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth, I read this from the annual Baseball Prospectus yearbook:

… The difference between his somewhat lucky 2004 and his slightly disappointing 2005 was that left-handed hitters figured out the tall righty, but he should be able to recover if he returns to throwing his fastball inside to lefties to set up his plus change outside. He also features an average curve with a slurvy break.

Interestingly, here’s what Charlie said when asked about Madson offering that slurvy curve with two strikes to Berkman:

“I would have liked to see him bust him hard in,” Charlie said after the game.

Of course the big question was why was Madson in there to face Berkman to begin with. Why didn’t Charlie turn to closer Tom Gordon? Well, Charlie wanted him to start the 10th inning. How about 21-year-old lefty Fabio Castro or slightly more seasoned lefty Eude Brito?

“I thought about [Castro], but I thought maybe that he would walk the guy,” Manuel said. “I thought it was putting him in a tough situation.”

Lefty Aaron Fultz? He’s nursing nagging shoulder soreness.

So how about 16-year veteran Arthur Rhodes? He’s a lefty and been around long enough to know that the situation was tailor made for him to come in and get the Phillies out of the jam. Besides, wasn’t Wednesday night’s game the perfect example of why the Phillies traded away Jason Michaels to get Rhodes?

So Charlie, why not bring Rhodes in to face Berkman?

“Rhodes told me he couldn’t go… “

What?

“He said his shoulder was sore.”

Let’s get this straight. The veteran lefty specialist couldn’t come into a September game that very well could affect the Phillies’ playoff chances because he shoulder was sore? He’s getting paid $3.7 million this season to pitch in those types of situations and his shoulder is sore?

Isn’t Rhodes the same guy who called out Cory Lidle for eating ice cream after games and pursuing off-field interests like poker and flying airplanes? Forget the fact that Lidle never missed a start during his time with the Phillies, except for the time when he had one pushed back to take care of a family emergency. In the end, it was Rhodes who didn’t answer the call.

If the Phillies fail to make it to the playoffs for the 13th straight October, they can blame the bullpen.