CLEARWATER, Fla. - For all the talk involving Brad Lidge's knee this spring, it is important to remember that the Phillies must also worry about his arm, and his mind, and the proper amount of preparation required by each to ensure that he is ready to face the pressure-packed late-inning situations that await a major league closer.
As of Sunday, when the veteran righthander expressed disappointment with his performance in a minor league appearance at the Carpenter Complex, that was not the case.
Yesterday, the team placed him on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 21, a move that will sideline him for at least the first four games of the season.
Though Lidge, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Feb. 25, had maintained the belief that he'd be ready for Opening Day, the rationale behind the transaction is clear: Give him another week in Florida, let him regain the final 2 or 3 mph missing from his velocity, and allow him to hit the ground running once he finally arrives in Philadelphia.
"It's a pretty demanding job that he is going to have for us and he's a very important piece of our club," Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "For him to be able to close out games and to be prepared physically and mentally to do that, that's the most important thing."
In the meantime, setup man Tom Gordon will serve as the team's closer, a role in which he thrived in the first half of the 2006 season.
Lidge will be eligible to rejoin the team April 5. By that point, he will likely have pitched between eight and 10 innings in spring training. Had he attempted to rush back for Opening Day, he would have had no more than five.
Judging by the way he felt Sunday, that wouldn't have been enough. Against a team of minor leaguers, Lidge loaded the bases with one out before escaping the jam with an inning-ending doubleplay. Afterward, he was disappointed, and seemed frustrated that his velocity was not yet where it needed to be.
For the first time, he realized he might need more than the three appearances he was scheduled for this week.
"It was the first time I felt like I hadn't made a big jump," Lidge said.
He will pitch today, Thursday and Saturday. Next week, he'll get at least three more outings, and might get some work pitching back-to-back days.
Lidge estimated that he is throwing about 91 or 92 mph now. Normally, he is in the 94-95 range.
"He's just not there yet, which is not alarming or concerning by any means," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "In talking to Brad, he generally needs between seven and 10 innings. And he's sitting at two, maybe three now. It's just not enough time to get him ready and that's not fair to him."
The Phillies are counting on Lidge to solidify the back end of their bullpen, but it all hinges on him regaining the form he had in 2004 through 2006, when he saved 29, 42 and 32 games, respectively, and established himself as one of the most dominant closers in the game.
"This guy's a big piece," Dubee said. "So 5 days into the season, if that is all it takes, that's nothing."
The Phillies are confident that Gordon can man the position for the time being. Though he struggled with injuries last season and at one point contemplated retirement, the 40-year-old righthander has thrown well this spring. Though he has allowed five earned runs in 7 2/3 innings, he says he feels better physically than he has since the end of the 2005 season.
"When you see him free and popping the ball and the curveball has some bite to it, that means he's feeling good and he's on," manager Charlie Manuel said.
Lidge will miss at least three games against the Nationals and one against the Reds, but said he is confident he'll be ready after that.
As of yesterday, the Phillies and Kris Benson had not discussed their long-term plans, the veteran righthander said. Benson, who signed a minor league deal with the team last month, has an opt-out clause in his contract that takes effect today if he is not added to the 40-man roster. Before last night's game against the Yankees, Ruben Amaro declined to discuss anything involving the situation. Benson, who continues to recover from soreness in his surgically repaired pitching arm, said he sees no reason why he would choose to leave the Phillies.
Benson said Amaro and agent Gregg Clifton were making plans to discuss his future, just to make sure both sides are on the same page.
"They put a lot of time in to get my shoulder straight," said Benson, whose guaranteed earnings will jump from $100,000 to $600,000 once he is added to the big-league roster. "I'm sure they don't want to just blow that off. Even though it's a minimal investment, I'm sure they want to make sure the time invested in me pays off. I'm sure I'll be here after tomorrow."
The Phillies fell to 11-14-1 in Grapefruit League action as righthander J.D. Durbin allowed six runs on six hits in the fifth inning. Durbin, who at one point was competing for spots in both the rotation and bullpen, allowed two more home runs to push his spring total to eight (in 13 1/2 innings). Starter Jamie Moyer threw 74 pitches, allowing three runs on eight hits in four innings. Moyer will make his last start Saturday at Citizens Bank Park. Third baseman Pedro Feliz hit a two-run home run off of Yankees starter Phil Hughes in the fourth inning.