Derek Bodner. 14th September, 2009 - 6:23 pm
Ask any of Charlie Manuel's players, either past or present, to describe him and one of the first words you will hear is loyalty.
Used in a positive light this will reflect the genuine affection his players feel for him, perhaps one of the reasons he is able to keep said players performing as a cohesive unit.
After achieving perfection last season as one of the key components in helping the Manuel led Philadelphia Phillies to only the second World Championship in franchise history, it is easy to see why Manuel would have an extreme sense of loyalty to Brad Lidge. Add in the fact that Lidge is a high-character, hard-working player and you can't help but root for him to succeed.
I recall back to August 18th against the Padres, the game in which Lidge suffered his first blown save as a Phillie. The standing ovation he received was one of the better displays of appreciation the fans would shower upon last years champions.
Nobody, not the fans in attendance, nor the ones watching on television, or Edward Murphy himself, could have predicted what would become of Brad Lidge's 2009 season. As historically good his 2008 season was, his 2009 season has been equally epically poor. Looking through the annals of baseball you will be hard pressed to find a season as bad as Lidge's this year, particularly from a prominent closer logging as many innings as Lidge has on a contending team.
0-7, 6.97 ERA, 1.80 WHIP. Opponents hitting a staggering .295 against him. He has 10 blown saves in 38 chances.
At some point, being loyal to one player becomes being disloyal to the other 24. Eventually, past success (even a season of perfection) is no longer a reliable predictor of future performance. Lidge followed up his tenth blown save of the season with another miserable outing, entering the 9th inning of a 5-3 game he gave up a single, hit a batter, threw a wild pitch, and gave up a walk in only 1/3 of an inning.
That seemed to be the tipping point for Manuel, who took Lidge out and brought in Ryan Madson to get the final two outs. Madson would go to record saves in his next two opportunities before giving up 2 runs on 3 hits in a 10-9 loss to the Mets on Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps prompted by Madson's bad outing, or perhaps because Madson had been seeing a lot of innings recently, Lidge got another opportunity to save a game on Sunday. This time he was "successful" as he recorded the save allowing 2 runs in one inning of a 5-4 win. Which brings us back to square one and the uncertainty of knowing who will be working the 9th inning from game-to-game.
There was more to Manuel's resistance to change than just loyalty. Fresh off of an extension he received during the course of last season, there has to be some concern that demoting Lidge for the remainder of the season could damage his psyche, putting perhaps more than just the remainder of this season in doubt. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and demoting Lidge during his struggles in Houston didn't exactly fare well for the Astros.
Furthermore, Charlie Manuel simply isn't presented with an abundance of quality options. There are many candidates, all of whom provide a great deal of risk and uncertainty. The best option of the group is a healthy, confident and effective Brad Lidge.
Madson, Plan B, has himself blown 6 saves in 14 opportunities, which includes time he spent filling in as the closer when Lidge was injured back in June as well as the recent opportunities after Lidge's temporary demotion. Establishing himself as one of the best set-up men in baseball with a fastball that can reach the upper 90's with good movement, Madson's 9th inning struggles have been perplexing, but real. Having given up only 2 home runs in 166 at-bats in the 8th inning, Madson has been victimized by 5 home runs in less than half the number of at-bats in the 9th. Despite being tied for 3rd in the National League in blown saves at 6, Madson remains the frontrunner for the closing position should Lidge continue to falter.
Brett Myers is a name that has been floated around, particularly since he will be used as a reliever for the remainder of the season after suffering a torn labrum in his hip back in May, and also because he has closer experience in the past. This would require Manuel to trust the closer's role heading into the playoffs to a player who is largely unknown, having logged only 4 2/3 innings since returning from a major injury. The 3 earned runs he gave up on Saturday against the Mets in only a third of an inning won't help his chances of being given the responsibility, at least not initially. If Myers becomes lights out in the bullpen over the next few weeks, and Madson and Lidge continue to struggle, Myers could become an option.
Doing the math, the Phillies are going to have a tough decision to make on their starting rotation come playoff time. Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton are virtual guarantees to be in the starting rotation, which means either J.A. Happ (10-4 with a 2.77 ERA) or Pedro Martinez (5-0, 2.87) is going to be the odd man out. Could Pedro step in and be a steadying force in the 9th inning? He has come out of the bullpen in the playoffs in the past, but his starts so far this year paint a troubling picture. Entering last night's masterpiece against the Mets, Pedro had a 7.50 ERA with opponents hitting .370 against him in the first inning. While he has been able to overcome a slow start as a starting pitcher, he would not be afforded the same luxury in a closing role.
That leaves Happ, the rookie who could potentially be left out of the postseason starting rotation in favor of the more experienced Martinez. Lacking a bona-fide, dominant out pitch, Happ has not been nearly as effective as a reliever as he has a starter. For his career he has a 3.94 ERA out of the bullpen (compared with a 2.95 ERA as a starter). He was effective this year out of the pen (2.49 ERA), albeit in limited time. Having never closed before in his professional life, if the Phillies were looking to go this route they would seemingly have to experiment with the idea soon to gauge whether it has any legs, a situation made even more tricky based on the fact that Happ is currently nursing a strained oblique.
After not losing a game in which they entered the 9th inning with a lead during the entire 2008 season, the Phillies have blown 21 saves so far this year. What was the strength of the World Championship team appears that it could be this years Achilles heal. Brad Lidge should have already run out of chances, and cannot be relied on this year. He should only get the job back in the event all other options have been exhausted and have proven they cannot perform the role.
Unfortunately, his teammates seem eager to oblige. The
Phillies don't have a solid answer to their 9th inning demons, which could ultimately be the flaw that prevents them from duplicating their October success.
--Derek Bodner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.