DAVE TOMAR: On June , after Brad Lidge had blown his fourth save of the young season, I wrote the following for The Perpetual Post: “For the Phillies, there is no better closer right now. And as the summer months wear on, Lidge will again prove that he is one of the premier closers in the league.”
To quote The Simpsons, “Well folks, when you’re right 52% of the time, you’re wrong 48% of the time.” Of the many nagging injuries which have turned the revolving door to the Phillies’ bullpen, the most troubling is Brad Lidge’s broken brain. Moments before I sat to write this on Sept. 23rd, Lidge suffered his 11th blown save of the season against the Florida Marlins, with the sight of another mediocre team celebrating a dramatic walk-off victory beginning to feel a lot like a chilling portent of things to come.
The Phillies are likely to enter the post-season for the third consecutive season but it seems trite now to reference Lidge’s perfection in 2008. It is late September and there is no time for a closer to be finding himself. Only thing is, the Phillies really don’t have another option. Last year’s crack setup team of J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson is hobbled by injury and misuse respectively. Romero, one of the few reliable lefties coming out of the pen, is only now on the cusp of being healthy after spending 90% of the season in the training room. There is no indication that he will be at playoff capacity by October. And Madson, the heir apparent to Lidge, has six of his own blown saves. With Madson in the ninth, the Phillies are not only no better off, but they’ve also sacrificed the team’s strongest setup man.
As the playoffs approach, the many question-marks posed by injury contrast what seemed last year to be a sure thing. Without question, the Phillies enjoy a far greater margin of error with respect to making the playoffs. This is thanks mostly to the dropoff in competition provided by the truly terrible and lamentable New York Mets. But last year was that perfect nexus of good play, good fortune and good health. With 88 wins thus far and the second best record in the National League behind the Dodgers, the Phillies have had the first two ingredients in some proportion.
But the bullpen has been a constant source of aggravation. Clay Condrey, Scott Eyre and Brett Myers all have spent significant time on the sidelines this year, and as all attempt to work themselves back into the mix, there are no guarantees that any will be fit for playoff reliability. Condrey and Eyre were major role players in last year’s success, bringing the club key outs in high pressure situations. This year, Chan Ho Park has been that player.
After sucking a big nut as the team’s fifth starter, Park was moved into a middle relief role where he has found both cultural comfort (reportedly for the first time in his career) and great success. Following a disastrous string of starts, Park would throw 38 relief appearances with an ERA of 2.52. He would also demonstrate surprisingly potent stuff. When his hamstring popped mysteriously on September 17th, the healthy part of the bullpen was whittled to two minor league call-ups (Sergio Escalona and Tyler Walker), the genuinely subpar Chad Durbin and Jamie Moyer, who convincingly played the 2000 Year Old Man in the classic Mel Brooks bit of the same name.
As another note of importance, catcher Carlos Ruiz is now struggling to return from a wrist sprain. With bona fide second stringer Paul Bako catching the bulk of games, fans will have an opportunity to appreciate how sorely Ruiz is missed. As Bako and Lidge wrangled to find themselves on the same page tonight, you could see another one just slipping away. In order for the shaky bullpen to right itself, Ruiz must return to full health. He is a backstop, a stabilizer and a keeper of the team’s rhythm.
Fortunately for the Phillies, most if not all of the players who have been sidelined are expected to return in time for some last minute regular season work. Unfortunately, nobody available either healthy or otherwise, is likely to step forward and take Lidge’s job. Without an anchor, the bullpen threatens to stand between the World Champions and their own crown. Just as we exhaled a sigh of relief with the approach of every ninth inning last year, so will we hold our breath for as long as this playoff run lasts.
CHRIS PUMMER: While a shutdown option for the ninth inning like last year’s version of Lidge would give Phillies fans comfort, there’s reason to panic just because they don’t have Brian Fuentes or Fernando Rodney closing out games.
That’s because man-for-man, the Phillies are likely as deep as any other bullpen crew that will be pitching in the playoffs. Even if Lidge isn’t asked to touch a rosin bag this October, the Phillies still have lots of options. None will inspire the kind of confidence of a Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan or even the 2008 version of Lidge. But there’s still enough to work with.
The Phillies have had one of the best pitching staffs in the second half of this season in part because Eyre has returned from injury to give the team some fantastic relief. Park has been reborn as a reliever. Walker has been a pleasant surprise and despite his struggles in the ninth, Madson has still posted pretty good numbers.
With J.A. Happ likely joining the mix, the Phillies need only one of Myers, Lidge or Romero to demonstrate competency to make the pen six deep with solid arms. That’s without Moyer as long-man or a younger arm like Kyle Kendrick getting a spot.
The Phillies will still need guys to get and stay healthy, as well as a dose of luck. But that story’s no different than any other team’s bullpen going into the playoffs.
Can Park recover from his hamstring injury and return to recent form? Yes. Could Happ have a run like Adam Wainwright did for the Cardinals in 2006? Absolutely.
The bottom line, however, is that the Phillies will succeed or fail with what’s carried them to the playoffs. If the best offense in the National League keeps scoring runs and a strong rotation fronted by Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitches deep into games, the bullpen will be but a footnote in the run to a second-straight World Series win.