BRAD LIDGE hasn't been the same pitcher since giving up that game-winning homer to

Albert Pujols

in Game 5 of the NLCS in 2005.

So, if Astros manager Phil Garner needs a closer this weekend against the Phillies, Dan Wheeler will get the call. Lidge was removed from that role earlier this week after having a 5.28 earned run average last season and blowing his only save opportunity.

"I'm definitely upset about losing my role," he told the Houston Chronicle. "Garner made the decision and I will, of course, stand by that. He's my manager and I'll do whatever he wants me to do. That being said, I'm pretty ticked off about it. I'm very upset, so hopefully it's something that motivates me."

General manager Tim Purpura says he isn't looking to trade Lidge, but it's not surprising that teams looking for relief help are already starting to circle. And it would be surprising if the Phillies didn't pay extra-close attention if Lidge gets into a game sometimes in the next 3 days. Especially since there's no indication that he doesn't have any physical problems. His stuff is still there.

The Phillies aren't the only team with bullpen issues, though.

The Marlins were pretty proud of themselves for getting Jorge Julio from the Diamondbacks late in spring training. He already has been taken out of the closer's role with a 14.73 ERA.

"It's best for me right now," Julio admitted. "I need to work out my game, especially my command."

The Royals might use Rule 5 draft pick Joakim Soria as their closer while Octavio Dotel rehabs his strained ribcage muscle. "They don't take good swings off [Soria]. For me, that's the determining factor," manager Buddy Bell said.

And the season isn't even 2 weeks old.

So, no, the Phillies aren't alone in having bullpen concerns early in the season. Not that that's any consolation.

The hot corner

* The Dodgers knew Luis Gonzalez didn't have a strong arm when they signed him, but figured that with rifle-armed shortstop Rapheal Furcal as the cutoff man, it wouldn't matter. Well, Furcal is out with a sprained left ankle and opponents have already taken advantage of that by turning at least two singles into doubles against Gonzalez.

* Some Yankees have quietly begun to question the decision to fire strength and conditioning coach Jeff Mangold and replace him with a pair of "performance enhancement" coordinators. Since the start of spring training, six players have missed time because of muscle strains.

* The Devil Rays, always looking for an edge, have a "Hack Attack" pitching machine capable of delivering smaller-than-regulation baseballs. The idea is that it helps improve vision and bat control.

Around the bases

* Superagent Scott Boras, who represents players on all the NL West teams, says the Padres should be favored to win the division and could well run away with it.

* Devil Rays centerfielder Rocco Baldelli wears the number 1180 on his batting gloves. It's a nod to the last four digits of the phone number of the family business, ABAL Check Cashing, back in Rhode Island.

* Cubs catcher Michael Barrett was driving back to Chicago after a series in Milwaukee when he decided to stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Kenosha, Wis. Some of the diners recognized him, one thing led to another and the next thing you know, Barrett was picking up the check for everybody in the place.

* Check out the dancing entrance of Baltimore's Kevin Millar in Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on YouTube. He dared teammates to do what he referred to as a tribute to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and, when he couldn't convince anybody, did it himself. He conceded that he took some ribbing afterward. "Obviously, the rhythm factor," he said. "We knew that was going to be a problem."

* The Diamondbacks are off to a good start, but don't seem to be getting carried away. "We believe we're a good ballclub. Therefore, we believe we should be in a position to win every night. Therefore, when we're shaking hands afterward, we're not surprised," said veteran first baseman Tony Clark.


* A lot has been made of the fact that there was so much snow in Cleveland that the Indians were forced to play a series in Milwaukee's domed Miller Park. Many have suggested that teams that play in cold-weather cities should always open indoors or in warmer climates.

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro is keeping his perspective. "Unless you're prepared to play the whole first month on the road, you're not going to be able to avoid the weather here," he pointed out. "Obviously, this time it was historic."

Shapiro did note that it makes sense to schedule those early games against division opponents, who will be back later in the year, rather than against teams making their only trip of the season.

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