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The Phillies' closer problem

Not a great weekend in our nation's capital for the two-time defending National League champions. Some of the problems that befell the Philadelpia Phillies in losing two of three games to the Washington Nationals appear to be minor and fixable:

Roy Oswalt, whom the Nationals ambushed Friday night in his Phillies debut, will pitch better -- once the Phillies aren't asking him to make an emotional goodbye to the only franchise he had ever known, pull off a solid half-day of travel, and meet his new teammates only a few hours before he would be on the mound, all in one 24-hour period.

Slugger Ryan Howard apparently will be fine, after twisting his ankle Sunday, with the Phillies saying he should be able to avoid a trip to the disabled list. Same for left fielder Raul Ibanez, who was scratched before that game with a sore wrist.

But there is no easy solution to the Phillies' problem at the back end of their bullpen, where closer Brad Lidge is making it harder and harder for Manager Charlie Manuel to justify continuing to hand him the ball in the ninth inning. Saturday night's spectacular implosion, in which Lidge gave up a mammoth, three-run, walk-off homer to Washington's Ryan Zimmerman, was only the latest example. (Of course, Manuel did give Lidge the ball again in a save situation in the 11th inning Sunday, and Lidge delivered a 1-2-3 inning.)

Manuel was in no mood to defend his choice of Lidge in the immediate aftermath of Saturday night's destruction. Asked why Lidge was still closing, Manuel snapped back, "I hear you [reporters] say that for two damn years now. I hear this and that and this and that.... Let's just drop it right there."

With the benefit of the breathing room provided by Sunday's win, Manuel had calmed down, saying of Lidge, "I've got to give him a little rope. I've definitely got to show him that I'm willing to stay with him.... [Sunday] was a good start. Now he's got to have two or three [successful] games in a row. And then I think he may be all right, because he's very capable."

Problem is, all the evidence says something different. Since his perfect 48-for-48 season in 2008, which culminated in the Phillies winning the World Series, Lidge has converted just 41 of his 56 save opportunities. His ERA was 7.21 last year and sits at 5.32 this year. His strikeout rate is holding steady, but his groundball rate, which was a career-best 58.7 percent in 2008, slipped to 49.3 percent last year and is down again to 43.8 percent this year.

The simple fact is that Lidge has lost his fastball. According to data at Fangraphs.com, his heater averaged 96.0 mph in 2005, but has slipped a little in each year since -- down to 92.5 mph this year. He knows it, too -- which is why he is throwing fewer fastballs than ever in his career (43.4 percent of his overall pitches).

"I'm learning to pitch with a little less on my fastball," Lidge acknowledged Sunday. "You don't really want to pay too much attention to it, because you want to go out there and execute your pitches."

Unfortunately for the Phillies, there isn't a readily available alternative to Lidge. Ryan Madson has proven unreliable every time they have used him to fill in. Jose Contreras has struggled since a solid stint as Lidge's replacement when the latter was injured earlier this year. Veteran lefty J.C. Romero has walked 20 batters in only 24 1/3 innings in 2010.

A year ago, the Phillies could afford to give Lidge the time he needed to work his problems out. On this same date in 2009, they led the NL East by six games. But this year, they trail the Atlanta Braves by 2 1/2 games in the division, and the San Francisco Giants by 3 1/2 games for the wild card. It isn't hyperbole to postulate that the Phillies simply can't get back to the playoffs without a more reliable performance from the closer's spot.

Which means their season rests on Brad Lidge, a scary thought these days.

By Dave Sheinin  |  August 2, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
 
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Comments

Lidge has one more blow up in him before Manuel HAS to run the role over to someone else. And they have options as Madson and Baez have both closed and Contreras has been effective too. Loyalty is great, and Lidge has been terrific in the past, but the past is the past and that club needs every W to make the playoffs.

Posted by: dfh21 | August 3, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

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