A Closer Crisis in Philly
Whatever that was we witnessed from the Phillies on Tuesday night at Nationals Park -- a one-day blip in Lidge's tenure as closer, a season's worth of slow-building toxic gas finally exploding, or something in between -- it is clear the Phillies' season has just reached a critical crossroads, at a most inopportune time: less than four weeks from the end of the season.
The basic facts of what occurred Tuesday night are these: After Lidge, the Phillies' veteran closer and a hero of last year's World Series run, loaded the bases with one out in the ninth inning, and with the Phillies trying to protect a two-run lead over the Nationals, Manuel, the Phillies' manager, yanked him in favor of set-up man Ryan Madson. Madson struck out Ryan Zimmerman and coaxed a weak grounder from Adam Dunn to seal the win.
Here's the subtext: Lidge, who famously went 48-for-48 in save opportunities last year, has struggled virtually all season, eroding whatever permanent claim he might have had to the job by virtue of his career accomplishments, his contract (a three-year, $37.5 million deal that started this year) or the goodwill he banked during last year's historic run. And also: the Phillies were beginning to get a little worried about their lead in the NL East, which was 8 1/2 games over the Florida Marlins just a few days ago, but which was down to six games following an ugly four-game sweep at Houston.
Still, of all the circumstances that went into Tuesday night's angst-filled finish, this fascinating nugget has been largely overlooked: Manuel's sudden mid-inning switch from Lidge to Madson was not really so sudden; in fact, he had Madson warming up in the Phillies' bullpen at the start of the inning -- a show of no-faith that Lidge surely noticed as he faced the first batter of the inning. Manuel suspected Lidge would struggle, and didn't want to wait until it was too late to salvage the game.
Manuel, who ripped his team following the sweep in Houston, correctly pointed out the Phillies' need to win a game trumped the impulse to show loyalty towards Lidge. But now what? Lidge is 0-7 with a 7.15 ERA, a 1.788 WHIP and a rate of 5.5 walks per nine innings. Madson corresponding numbers are 5-4, 3.18, 1.231 and 2.8.
Who's the Phillies' closer going forward? Manuel, of course, said it was Lidge, but added cryptically: "I'm not saying that he'll close tomorrow or the next day, but I look at him as the closer."
Just 24 hours earlier, Lidge had this to say about the loyalty shown to him by Manuel: "It's been incredible. This season has had a lot of ups and downs, but the whole time he's been, 'Hey, listen. You're my guy. I know you're going to come out of it at some point, so I'm going to stick with you, and that's it.'"
Great teams rarely change closers this deep into the season. The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals didn't settle on rookie Adam Wainwright until the season's final two weeks, but that was forced by a hip injury to veteran Jason Isrinnghausen. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays used a committee approach.
The 2009 Phillies have a little bit of wiggle room. Their division lead remains sturdy, though not unassailable. As long as that lead doesn't dwindle, they have a few weeks left to work on Lidge's problems (primariily fastball location). And Brett Myers's re-invention as an ace set-up man (who also, by the way, saved 21 games for the Phillies in 2007) gives them the means to replace Madson in the eighth-inning role if Madson replaces Lidge in the ninth.
But this is also a delicate situation for Manuel. There will come a drop-dead point, whether it's next week or the start of the postseason, where the live-or-die circumstances of the season no longer allow for the luxury of experimentation and shows of loyalty. The Phillies would be wise to prepare for that point in advance -- which might just be what we're witnessing right now.
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