World Series: Injury to Insult

lidge_choochThis very well may be a case of injury adding to insult. In fact, it’s a two-fold thing… call it a rich tapestry of absurdness and irony. Like an onion, this story has many layers and the more that is peeled, the more it stinks.

OK, that might be a bit dramatic, but it truly is bizarre that both closers in the 2009 World Series were suffering through different states of injury.

For Brad Lidge, there very well could be a logical explanation for his poor season in which he posted 11 blown saves in 42 chances as well as the worst ERA in history for a pitcher with at least 25 saves. Though Lidge was decent in a handful of outings in the postseason, he took the hard-luck loss in Game 4 of the World Series and never seemed to gain the full trust of manager Charlie Manuel.

It seemed as if Manuel used Lidge only when he had no other options even though he had five scoreless appearances in the NLDS and NLCS.

The World Series, however, didn’t go so well.

So maybe we can chalk that up to the fact that Lidge will undergo surgery to have a “loose body” removed from his right elbow. Scott Eyre is having a similar procedure to his left elbow on Monday, too. The difference with Lidge is he will also have his right flexor/pronator tendon checked out. If it shows so much wear and tear that surgery is required, don’t expect Lidge to be recovered by the time spring training starts.

But if the tendon is fine, then all Lidge will need is to have that elbow scoped.

Of course Lidge also spent time on the disabled list in June for an injured knee. It was because of his knee pain that Lidge says he altered his mechanics, which may have led to his ineffectiveness. Now we know that those mechanical issues just might have led to the loose body and tendon trouble in his right elbow.

Not that Phillies fans are looking for a cause for why Lidge had such a difficult year, but there it is. However, it seems as if the price tag on a second straight trip to the World Series was pretty costly now that we see that Lidge, Eyre and Raul Ibanez are all headed for surgery.

Surgery might not be necessary for Mariano Rivera, who as it turned out was a little injured during the World Series. The New York Times reported that Rivera says he injured his ribcage by throwing 34 pitches in a two-inning save in Game 6 of the ALCS, though manager Joe Girardi says the injury came in Game 2 of the World Series where the closer threw 39 pitches in a two-inning save.

mo riveraWhenever it happened, chances are Rivera might not have been able to pitch had the World Series extended to a seven games.

Imagine that… a World Series Game 7 with the Yankees and the Phillies and Rivera can’t go?

“I don’t want to talk about it now,” Rivera told The Times with a smile.

Certainly the Game 7 question is a bit silly considering Rivera got the final five outs in the clinching Game 6. To get those last outs, Rivera needed 41 pitches—the most he’s thrown in a playoff game since throwing 48 pitches in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

“It was real important we close it out in Game 6,” Girardi told The Times, stating the obvious.

Meanwhile, it seems as if the Yankees tried to pull off a little misdirection of their own in order to hide Rivera’s injury. During the games in Philadelphia, Rivera was seen clutching a heating pad against his ribcage. When asked why he needed the heating pad by the press, Rivera said it was because he was cold.

That’s a reasonable answer, perhaps. Then again, the game-time temperature for Game 3 was 70 degrees and it was 50 for games 4 and 5.

So maybe Rivera might have been better off biting down on a bullet after a couple of belts of rye whiskey instead of the heating pad? After all, he must have been dealing with a lot of pain to pile up those four outings in the World Series.

“I had to go through it,” Rivera said, gritting his teeth on an imaginary bullet. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Now get this… Rivera says he wants to play for five more seasons. For a throwback closer who has no qualms about piling up the innings, five more years sounds like a long time—especially when one considers that Rivera will be 40 at the end of the month.

World Series: Bad beats

lidge_choochPHILADELPHIA—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.

mitchOf 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.

Hell’s Bells: Trevor Hoffman’s uncanny consistency

trevor_hoffmanEd. 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.

‘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.

Party like it’s 1976

charlieBaring 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.

jimmy2007
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.

19931993
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.

schmidt1980
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.

lerch1978
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.

jvukovich1976
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.

Just Manny being Rickey

mannyWASHINGTON – 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.

manny_chuckConjuring 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

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.

Looking at the blown save redux

GooseNo 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.

bruce_sutterIn 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?

pedroHang 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.

johnny_benchHow 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.

sargeSo 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

lidgePITTSBURGH – 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.

Big time in the big city

lidgeAs 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

Raul IbanezCrazy 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.

Utley plays

utley1CLEARWATER, Fla. — Yessir, as first reported by yours truly of CSNPhilly.com and Todd Cougar Zolecki of Phillies.com, Chase Utley played in a minor league game this afternoon at the Carpenter Complex.

I’m working on the details of the story now, so be sure to keep clicking back right here for all the particulars and some blurry camera phone pictures.

Meanwhile, Utley went 2-for-4 with a ground-rule double and a pair of whiffs in his first two ABs. Aftewards, Zo and I chatted up Utley about the return and it appears as if the recovery is still on track.

Also, Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin both pitched an inning each during the minor-league game. Lidge gave up a two-out double and had a strikeout in his inning, while Durbin was perfect. He even struck out some dude with “Utley” on a pitch that the All-Star complained was too nasty for this time of year.

So yeah, more is on the way…

Game 2: Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

There have been some close ones – that save from Game 1 of the NLDS and the clincher against the Nats stand out. But for the most part, Lidge has made it look easy.

That’s 45 up and 45 down for the Phils’ closer. He’s a pack rat… he saves everything.

This time, though, Brad Lidge nailed one down to put the Phillies within two victories of the World Series. After this game, the next time the Phillies play at Citizens Bank Park it could be against the Rays or the Red Sox in Game 3 of the World Series.

Let that sink in for a moment…

If the Phillies do come back to Philly for the NLCS, it will be to close it out. But needless to say, these guys smell blood. They don’t want to come back here.

Certainly though, Lidge made it a little interesting in the ninth by giving up a pair of walks with less than one out. As a result, the tying run came to the plate and the go-ahead run waited on deck. But before anyone could say “Black Friday: The Sequel,” Lidge struck out Matt Kemp and Nomar Garciaparra with 45,883 towel-waving and screaming fans freaking out.

Still perfect.

Game 2: Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

Eighth inning: Easy as 1-2-3-4

Ryan Madson was back to getting outs in the eighth, notching a 1-2-3 frame with a pair of strikeouts. Apparently, that long, loud out by Casey Blake was nothing more than an aberration.

Instead, it was clear that Madson was ready to get four outs in order to give the ball to Brad Lidge for another save chance.

On another note, it’s worth mentioning that the Phillies have not gotten a hit since the fourth inning and haven’t had a base runner since the fifth until Eric Bruntlett walked with two outs in the eighth. However, these Phils are all about manufacturing runs tonight… somebody look up the last time they scored eight runs without a homer.

Here comes Lidge.

End of 8: Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

Game 1: Phillies 3, Dodgers 2

Brad Lidge wasn’t messing around tonight. That wasn’t the case in Game 1 of the NLDS where the closer needed 35 pitches to barely hang on to a three-run lead against the Brewers.

But closers like Brad Lidge are Machiavellian. As long as they get three outs with the lead intact, it was a good night. In that case, Lidge hasn’t had a bad night all season. After 41 straight saves during the regular season and three more here in the playoffs, Lidge is a sure thing.

Lidge got through it perfectly in the ninth to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead in the series over the Dodgers on Thursday night, though he did give the fans a bit of a start when the first two outs nearly traveled to the warning track in center.

But again, the end justifies the means.

With that, the Phillies and their homer-heavy offense will go for two in a row on Friday afternoon.

Then we go to LA.

Game 1: Phillies 3, Dodgers 2

Eighth inning: Mad dog to the rescue

An interesting situation came up with one out at the top of the eighth. After throwing a diving changeup to strikeout Andre Ethier, Charlie Manuel bolted from the dugout to have a discussion with Ryan Madson about the next hitter.

Whatever Charlie told Madson was right on the money because it only took one pitch for him to get Manny Ramirez to line out when one swing could have tied the game.

Instead, Madson handed the ball over to closer Brad Lidge with at least a one-run lead for the ninth.

On another note, I had planned on writing about Madson since the last day in Milwaukee, but for some reason I sensed that he would pitch tonight and saved it. Guess what? I’m going to write about Madson tonight. Why not? The guy has been lights out down the stretch with an 0.64 ERA in 13 games and 14 innings. During that span, the lanky righty has held opponents to a .222 batting average, issued just one walk and whiffed 17.

Better yet, after sitting out with injuries for much of the second half last year, Madson has thrived in his first taste of playoff action.

More on Madson later tonight.

End of 8: Phillies 3, Dodgers 2

Game 4: Phillies 6, Brewers 2

MILWAUKEE – Charlie Manuel went with Brad Lidge in the ninth with a four-run lead mostly because there won’t be another game until next Thursday. Because the closer struggled a bit in Game 1 on just three days of rest, the Phillies might need to make sure they stay sharp the rest of the week.

At the same time, the Phillies will have a pitching staff rested and chomping at the bit when the Dodgers come to town next Thursday for Game 1 of the NLCS. Obviously L.A. will be sharp and rested, too, so it should be a pretty good series.

After all, pitching and defense are the keys to playoff baseball. During the regular season it’s often difficult to find rest for some pitchers, but here the Phillies and Dodgers will get some built into the schedule.

They can thank the prime-time TV schedule for that.

Anyway, down to the clubhouse for more color and flavor from a celebratory clubhouse. Do they pop the champagne for the NLDS? The Rockies did last year, but is it necessary?

Oh hell, why not? After all, this kind of stuff doesn’t happen every year with the Phillies.

Live it up!

Game 4: Phillies 6, Brewers 2

Phillies win series 3-1

Ninth inning: Still perfect

Sometimes the most important weapon in a closer’s repertoire is his reputation. Better than a fastball mixed with a nasty array of sliders, the mere thought that a pitcher is unhittable is probably half the battle.

For Brad Lidge at this point of the season, he’s known for that nasty slider and his perfect save record. With a perfect, 1-2-3 ninth – a complete 180-degree flip from yesterday’s ninth inning – Lidge saved his 43rd game in a row.

And he didn’t even break a sweat.

Lidge threw 35 pitches to six hitters yesterday for the tensest save in Phillies’ history since Mitch Williams used to pitch the ninth inning. This time, however, he needed just 12 pitches to nail it down and give the Phillies a 2-0 series lead and a chance to sweep it and advance to the NLCS on Saturday night.

Five more wins and the Phillies are in the World Series.

Game 2: Phillies 5, Brewers 2
Phillies lead best-of-five series, 2-0

Eighth inning: Save situations

Ryan Madson has a simple job here in the eighth inning…

Keep the lead.

That’s it. All the lanky right-handed reliever has to do is get through the inning relatively unscathed so Brad Lidge can come in for the ninth and close it out.

Frankly, Madson has one of those jobs that no one notices until he doesn’t do it properly. But the fact is his job is every bit as important as Lidge’s. This time, Madson kind of got it done. The Phillies left the eighth with the lead intact, though the reliever only notched two outs before Charlie Manuel summoned lefty J.C. Romero.

The move became necessary when Madson allowed a two-out hit to Ryan Braun that brought up lefty Prince Fielder with two on and a chance to tie the game with one swing. Needless to say, it’s not a position the Phillies have been too unfamiliar with during the first two games of this series.

Baseball is about pitching and defense in the playoffs. In that regard, Romero had a short – and vitally important – outing in the eighth. He threw just one pitch. It was a fastball that got in on the hands of Fielder, broke his bat into tiny pieces and sent the ball rolling slowly toward Chase Utley at second.

Inning over. Lidge will get the ball with the lead in the ninth.

End of 8: Phillies 5, Brewers 2

Game 1: Phillies 3, Brewers 1

I’m not sure, but I’d be willing to beat that Brad Lidge has moved past that game in Houston in the playoffs when Albert Pujols smacked that bomb deep into the night.

Remember that one? Some say it was the reason why he struggled for a bit during his time with the Astros and led to his trade to the Phillies.

Either way, it appears to have worked out pretty well for both the Phillies and Lidge. After all, 41-for-41 in save opportunities is pretty darned good. Better yet, his 1.95 ERA is a tad inflated by a handful of rocky outings in non-save appearances.

Plus, Lidge nailed down the Game 1 victory with a six-hitter save where he notched three strikeouts on 35 pitches.

Heading into the game, Lidge threw at least 24 pitches in his last three save chances, which is a bit too high. In fact, the last time the closer had a 1-2-3 save was Sept. 18 in Atlanta. But since the closer is only working for one inning he doesn’t really have to be the model of efficiency.

He clearly took his time in Game 1 by going to deep counts against nearly everyone. Four hitters worked the count to 3-2 and Ryan Braun doubled down the line in right to help push across the Brewers only run, while J.J. Hardy walked with two outs.

In the end, though, it wasn’t enough.

Lidge is Machiavellian. The end justifies the means. He’ll get there at his own pace.

But is it OK to be worried that it’s taking a little too long?

Game 1: Phillies 3, Brewers 1

Eighth inning: Long time coming

Today’s attendance is the second-largest crowd in CBP history with an announced 45,929. The largest crowd was Game 2 of last year’s NLDS against the Rockies with 45,991.

I bet the record falls tomorrow.

Nevertheless, the Phillies are three outs away from their first post-season victory since Game 5 of the 1993 World Series. That was the game where Curt Schilling tossed a three-hit shutout against the Blue Jays at the Vet.

I was there in the press box that day. In fact, I’ve been in the press box for the last eight Phillies’ playoff games in a row and 11 of the last 16.

I’m getting old.

Still, Cole Hamels is through eight innings with 101 pitches, two hits, one walk and nine strikeouts. If he’s going to top Schilling’s effort he’s gone to have to politick the hell out of manager Charlie Manuel because Brad Lidge is getting warmed up in the bullpen.

Whether Lidge or Hamels takes the mound in the ninth, they will face the top of the Brewers’ order.

On another note, both the Dow and the Nasdaq were down today. Hey, who needs to retire…

End of 8 Phillies 3, Brewers 0

Eighth inning: Phew! That was close!

Brad Lidge has been in a few big games during his career. Actually, he’s been in some really big games with everything on the line, including that one in Houston in the NLCS when Albert Pujols hit that home run.

Yeah, everyone remembers that one.

Though he seems relaxed and laidback away from the field, it’s obvious he gets amped up when he gets the ball. Even if the game is tight and the pressure is about to boil over, Lidge wants the ball.

After last night’s game when the prospect of pitching in the ninth inning of a clinching game was broached, Lidge’s eyes lit up.

“I don’t care if it’s 100-0 – I will be available,” he said. “There is no scenario where I won’t want to be out there.”

Of course Lidge usually only comes into the game when the Phillies have the lead. That thin thread became even more precariously delicate during the eighth inning when Ryan Madson entered and promptly got into a jam.

Unlike Lidge, this is the first time Madson has been in these high-pressure situations. Last season he was on the disabled list when the Phillies made their march to the post-season so all he could do was celebrate with his teammates and watch from the bench.

This year Madson gave up a leadoff single to (Phillie killer) Cristian Guzman and a long double to Ryan Zimmerman. Things really got worrisome for the 45, 177 in the house when Lastings Milledge lifted a blooper into short center field that shortstop Jimmy Rollins somehow hauled in.

But in doing so, Rollins collided with Shane Victorino — seemingly kicking him in the shins – as Guzman tagged and scored. After the play, Victorino remained on his back, but remained in the game.

Madson stayed in, too and got Elijah Dukes on a broken –bat grounder before whiffing Aaron Boone to end the inning.

When Boone swung and missed, Madson screamed and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

The Phillies tacked on one with two-outs in the bottom half of the inning when Victorino legged out an infield single and came around to score on Pedro Feliz’s RBI double.

Here comes Lidge…

End of 8: Phillies 4, Nats 2

Second inning: Lidge takes top honors

Before the game the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America – a secret society in charge of the demise of our great nation – handed out the post-season awards in the form of a handsome plaque.

The writers chose Brad Lidge for the MVP, Cole Hamels for top pitcher despite the fact that Lidge also is a pitcher. Greg Dobbs took home the prize for “Good Guy,” while Jamie Moyer got the special achievement award.

Perhaps the highlight of the brief, on-field ceremony was when the Philly Phantic mused up the flowing locks of the well coiffed scribe, Todd Zolecki. However, with his usual aplomb and a stylish flip of that mane, all returned to order for Zolecki.

Thank God.

Anyway, based on what Lidge said last night he is chomping at the bit to get out there in the ninth with a lead today.

Moyer issued a two-out walk to Aaron Boone, son of ex-Phillie great, Bob Boone. However, he threw 16 more pitches in the second and has racked up 33 through two innings… that’s too many.

The Phillies kicked up a bit of a fuss in the second against John Lannan when Pat Burrell walked and Shane Victorino singled to left with one out. However, Burrell was caught off second base when Pedro Feliz popped out to short center field.

That’s two base-running gaffes this week for Burrell if you are scoring at home.

End of 2: Phils 0, Nats 0

It’s when, not if for Phillies

Last season the Colorado Rockies finished the season by winning 14 of their final 15 games. Carrying that hot streak into the playoffs, the Rockies won seven more in a row to land in the World Series. The crazy part about that was the Rockies were in fourth place with 12 games remaining in the season and third place at game No. 161. Had they gone 13 for 15, it would not have worked out.

Certainly the Rockies’ hot streak through the last two weeks of the season and into the playoffs was one of the greatest closing runs ever. Six times they won by two runs or less, including a pair of extra-inning affairs.

In the understatement of all time, things just clicked for Colorado.

Meanwhile, things certainly are clicking for the Phillies these days, too. With five games remaining in the season, the Phillies can one-up the Rockies great closing run by winning 15 of their final 16 games. But unlike the Rockies, it doesn’t seem as if the Phillies are going to need the all-or-nothing surge. Instead, the Phillies fans aren’t thinking about “if,” the big question is, “when.”

As in, “When are they going to clinch?”

Yes, going 10 for 11 during the season’s final fortnight has a crazy way of putting things into better focus. After all, it wasn’t even three weeks ago when the Phillies left Washington, D.C. after a crippling 9-7 loss to the hapless Nationals that put their playoff hopes teetering on the balance. The slightest slip up at Shea Stadium against the Mets could have sent things spiraling out of control. A week later, after dropping a three-game series to the Marlins at the Bank, the margin for error got even tighter. Trailing the Mets by 3½ games with 16 to go seemed like too big of a mountain to scale.

Instead, 11 games later we’re sitting here wondering “when,” not “if.”

“Things happen. Sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “You’d be surprised. When you’re going good, somebody will hit a screaming foul ball. It goes foul by about six inches. What happens if he hits it on the line or something?”

Certainly Manuel isn’t losing much sleep over things like balls that land centimeters on one side of the line these days. Everything is working out for his club these days – every move is the right one, like when September call up Greg Golson entered Monday’s game as a pinch runner only to go from first to third before a pitch had been thrown.

In the ninth, with lights out closer Brad Lidge unavailable after a full weekend of closing out games in Miami, Brian McCann’s long fly ball to left field off Ryan Madson just missed being a two-run home run by inches. Rather than cutting deep into the Phillies’ lead, McCann’s hit was a simple double – nothing more than a chance for the Braves to pad their left-on-base totals.

So with five games to go in the regular season, the Phillies can seal things up before the weekend. Another victory over the Braves on Tuesday coupled with a loss by the Brewers ensures a Game 163 playoff game even if the Phillies lose their final four games. Better yet, two more victories ought to be enough to sew up the NL East and most likely send the Dodgers to Philly next week for the NLDS.

But if the Mets fold up again and the Brewers slip past them for the wild card (the Mets lead is one game with six to go), then the Phillies get to host Milwaukee again.

No matter the scenario, the Phillies are sitting pretty. Two more does the trick…

It not a matter of if, but when.

***
Speaking of which, it seems as if the Mets’ pitching is in full self-destruct mode as the games become more important. On Monday night, the fans at Shea were masquerading as empty, orange seats after an early battle against the Cubs turned into a laugher when pitcher Jason Marquis slugged a grand slam to break open the game as if it were a 10-pound bass.

So that’s the way it is, huh? Are the Mets nothing more than a dead fish waiting to be carved up?

Maybe so.

Either way, the Mets are not getting too far ahead of themselves like they did last year when it appeared it was simply a matter of “when,” not “if.” Because of that, the team installed extra seats near the dugouts to handle the overflow crowd and high-rollers in need of tickets for the playoffs — a plan that became foolhardy when the Phillies caught them on the last day of the season.

This year the Mets aren’t acting so quickly on the extra seats. With six more games to go and a wild-card berth looking more like the best post-season possibility, the club will wait to install those seats.

In the meantime, manager Jerry Manuel is looking to infuse his with the proverbial shot in the arm(s). Though it seems tenuous at best, starting pitcher John Maine could come off the disabled list in time to work out of the bullpen.

The best bet for the Mets, however, looks to be the notion that the Brewers are an even bigger dead fish with no more fits and flops left in them for one last push.

In the meantime, the Phillies could have the luxury of resting a few arms before learning who their first-round opponent will be.

***
The Philly scribes now have all angles of the J.A. Happ-as-Marty Bystrom bit covered. At least we do after Rich Hofmann chatted up the always loquacious Dallas Green for the latest update on the premise.

Big D’s big quote in Rich’s story?

“Marty did one hell of a job,” he said. “We don’t win without him – that’s for sure. We’d probably still win without Happ but we wouldn’t have won without Marty. He was 5-0, he started two games for us in the playoffs and the World Series. He was a hell of a pitcher, he really was, for a kid. He just got himself all messed up afterward. He got a sore arm.

“He never really got, I mean, that was Marty’s shining light, that September,” Green said. “Hopefully J.A. will get a little more than that.”

My favorite part of the other Bystrom story by that other guy was when it retired pitcher revealed that he did not know he was going to pitch in the decisive Game 5 of the NLCS until after the Phillies won Game 4. That meant all Bystrom could do was go home and take a nap before attempting to pitch the Phillies into the World Series.

“I hadn’t pitched in nine or 10 days and Dallas came up to after Game 4 and said, ‘You got the ball tomorrow, kid,’” Bystrom said. “I said, ‘I’m ready.’”

I guess Rich’s story is better… at least it’s shorter.

The MVP and the shrine

Baring a collapse of Mets-like proportions, the Phillies will be in the playoffs for a second year in a row. It will be the first time the Phillies made the post-season in consecutive years since 1980-81 and if history is about to repeat itself, we are in 1977 of the second golden age of Phillies baseball.

Maybe soon the new general manager will find this club its Pete Rose.

Nevertheless, with winning come the personal accolades from the old media groups that give out the awards. Obviously, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins took home the MVP award the last two seasons, and Charlie Manuel should be in the mix for manager of the year this season, while Brad Lidge will likely get a Cy Young Award vote or two.

But as the Phillies surge on to October, it’s Howard and his chances for another MVP Award that has the pundits chirping. This month Howard has batted .379 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 18 games. He also has reached base safely in 26 of the last 27 games and leads the Majors in homers (46) and RBIs (141) by a wide margin.

Based on those numbers Howard has to be a shoo-in, right?

“Those numbers speak for themselves,” Manuel said. “You can say whatever you want to say, he’s the best run producer in the league. He has the RBIs and he has the homers.”

Well… not so fast. Howard also has the strikeouts with 194 – just five shy of the all-time record he set last season. Then there is the matter of that .247 batting average, heightened, of course, by an April in which he hit .168 and the fact that Howard did not crack the Mendoza Line until late May. Plus, Howard’s slugging percentage is just .534, which is 10th best in the National League, an indicator that he just isn’t getting enough hits…

Other than home runs, obviously.

Still, Howard is a top candidate for the award with Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Carlos Delgado and Manny Ramirez, all of whom have better all-around stats than the slugging Phillie.

But so what? Howard has clearly been the straw that stirs the Phillies, just as he was in 2006 and Rollins was in 2007. If the MVP trend remains as an award for the player who is the catalyst on a contending team, Howard’s September just might have put him over the top regardless of the batting average and the strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the last time two players for the same team won three MVP Awards in a row was when Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds  did it for the Giants from 2000 to 2004. Before that, Joe Morgan and George Foster won it for the Reds from 1975 to 1977.

In the American League, the last time such a feat occurred was when Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard won the MVP from 1960 to 1963 for the Yankees.

***
Speaking of the Yankees, click on any web site out there for any number of laments about the final game of Yankee Stadium set for tonight. As cynical I am about such things, it is significant day not just in the history of baseball, but also for America. After all, more than just being a mere baseball park Yankee Stadium is/was a tourist destination and a true image of Americana.

In fact, the first time I ever went to New York City, the one thing I wanted to see more than anything else was Yankee Stadium.

I actually didn’t get inside the place until 1989 when I took a solo, post-high-school graduation road trip through the Northeast. Just for the occasion, I popped in a cassette of Lou Reed’s New York, which played as I crossed from Manhattan into the South Bronx.

The Yankees won that day when Randy Velarde led off the ninth with a triple and Wayne Tolleson singled him home. Who would have known that the Yankees had just six wins left in them before George Steinbrenner decided to give his manager Dallas Green the axe?

Nevertheless, I wasn’t ready for the hardcore vibe of the Stadium the first time I visited the place mostly because the first few games I ever attended were at The Vet and Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Baseball is a much more serious endeavor when played at Yankee Stadium, just as I imagine any event would be. In fact, watching a baseball game in Yankee Stadium is probably the same significance as watching the Declaration of Independence be signed at Independence Hall.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get back to The Stadium a few more times as a fan and another time for work where I had a long pre- and post-game chat with Scott Rolen before taking a solo tour of the entire playing field, clubhouses, bullpens, Memorial Park and anywhere else all by myself. To leave, I walked through left field and up a ramp in some dirty and forgotten corner of the building and to the subway platform bound for Grand Central Station.

Oddly, every trip to Yankee Stadium always felt like the first one – that hardcore vibe never waned.

So it all ends for Yankee Stadium tonight. Next year the new $1.3 billion new Yankee Stadium will open just across the street from the old shrine. Frankly, those old buildings struggle to keep up in our new age, though there is a troubling trend that has developed in the new places in that regular folks quickly get priced out.

The best thing about baseball when it was played in places like The Vet and Memorial Stadium was that it was egalitarian. People of modest means and families could afford to attend a bunch of games a year.

But like the glory days of Yankee Stadium, those days are long gone.


Doesn’t that sound better than drudging up 1964 every time a team chokes away a late-season lead?

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.

Ed Wade makes a good deal for the Phillies

Brad LidgeThe Phillies picked up closer Brad Lidge along with infielder Eric Bruntlett late Wednesday night from the Houston Astros. All the Phillies had to give up was outfielder Michael Bourn, who hails from Houston; reliever Geoff Geary, who struggled during 2007; and minor leaguer Mike Costanzo, who whiffed 290 times in his first two full seasons as a pro.

It seems as if GM Pat Gillick shored up the bullpen and the rotation in making the trade. Certainly Lidge isn’t coming to the Phillies to set up for Brett Myers. In that case, Lidge would take over the ninth-inning duties, while Myers would slide back into the rotation as a No. 2 guy.

Lidge, from Sacramento, Calif., turns 31 on Dec. 23 and is a graduate of Notre Dame. Last year he went 5-3 with 19 saves and held opponents to a .219 batting average in 66 games. He also averaged 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings and has more strikeouts than any other reliever in the Majors during the past four seasons.

Meanwhile, it seems as if ex-Phillies GM/current Astros’ GM, Ed Wade, is trying to get all of his old guys back. Wade, after all, was running the Phillies when they drafted Bourn, Geary and Costanzo. Better yet, Costanzo was the Phillies top pick in the 2005 draft — Wade’s last with the Phillies.

So if Wade is trying to put his team back together, perhaps Gillick can offer Pat Burrell for, oh I don’t know… Roy Oswalt? Why not? They’re both making about the same amount of money, right?