Why Brad Lidge could be the difference-maker in the NL races
The difference between the Phillies of '07, who had a playoff spot practically handed to them and then wasted it in a first-round spinout, and the Phils of '08, who are earning their way into the postseason with a screamingly convincing September run, is standing calmly on the mound in Atlanta, staring in at his catcher.
It is the ninth inning of Thursday's game on a cool October-like evening at Turner Field, and the Phillies are holding onto a one-run lead. For the 38th time this season, Brad Lidge, the Phillies' closer, is in the game with a save on the line. And for the 38th time, Lidge does not waste his chance.
Fastball, slider, slider. Martin Prado strikes out swinging.
Slider, four fastballs, another slider. Kelly Johnson grounds out to first base.
Fastball, fastball, slider, slider. The National League's leading hitter, Chipper Jones, strikes out swinging to end the game.
Three up. Three down. Another win for the Phillies. Another step closer to the NL East title. And one more step for Lidge toward re-claiming his place as the league's most dominant closer.
With the Phillies in a three-team fight for two playoff spots, Lidge has emerged as the likely difference-maker. Where would the Brewers be today if they had someone like Lidge? What would the Mets do, right now, to have someone like Lidge to count on in the last inning of a close game? Think about how different the pennant races would be this year if Lidge wasn't back to being his old self, or if he wasn't pitching for the Phillies.
In other words, Lidge could very well be the insurance card that all but guarantees Philadelphia a return to the postseason.
"Right now, the way we're playing, I don't know a whole lot of teams that can play with us," says Lidge, simply laying out the facts. "We've got all the pieces, and now we're starting to play like we should."
The Phillies have won seven straight games, their longest winning streak of the season, and have moved from four games back in the wild-card standings just a week ago to a half-game up in the NL East. It has been a stunning surge, fueled by a lineup that is clicking (.311, with a .934 OPS in the streak) and a rotation that is 5-0, with a 3.35 ERA, in those seven games.
At the end of it all is Lidge, or the threat of him. Nothing in baseball this season is as sure as Lidge with a save chance in his big right hand.
According to the Phillies, only four players in history have saved 20 or more games in a single season without blowing one (though Rod Beck did it twice, with both the Padres and Giants). And only two have saved 30 or more games without messing up. The first was Eric Gagne, who saved 55 in 2003. The second is Lidge, this year.
Lidge is 38-for-38 after Thursday's perfect ending, and to get an idea of just how good that is, consider this: the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, who has broken the single-season record for saves this year (he's now at 59), has blown seven saves in '08. Kerry Wood, the Cubs' All-Star closer, has blown six. Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox has five. Bobby Jenks of the White Sox has three. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera has one.
Lidge, meanwhile, has been nearly untouchable in his save chances, using a fastball in the low- to mid-90s and a slider that absolutely slices the heart out of hitters. Opposing batters are hitting just .193 against him. Right-handers hit just .110. He has struck out 84 batters in 65 1/3 innings. He doesn't have a loss. He has a 1.93 ERA.
"What people don't realize is he has two sliders, a big tilty one and a harder, shorter one," says his manager, Charlie Manuel. "And his fastball is much better than people think."
Lidge came to the Phillies in an offseason trade with Houston, where he had struggled at times in the previous couple of years and had, clearly, lost the trust of the organization. In Philly, under Manuel, Lidge has again become the type of pitcher he was in 2004 and '05, when he had a 2.07 ERA and averaged more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings. He is so comfortable with the organization, and the Phillies with him, that he signed a three-year, $37.5 million extension in July with a club option for the 2012 season.
Where once he listened to everyone -- Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, pitching coaches, teammates, next door neighbors, the know-it-all fan on the Houston street -- Lidge now is concentrating on simplifying. He has scrapped his cut fastball. He has forgotten about a splitter (though he still plays with it in the bullpen on occasion). He is going with what he knows, and what he does best.
Fastball. Slider. Slider. Slider.
In a September where sure things are hard to come by, Lidge is about as close as anyone is going to get. And that means the Phillies are too.