ON SUNDAY, when Brad Lidge walked off the mound at the end of a ninth inning in which he walked Greg Norton and later allowed a two-out RBI double to Casey Kotchman, pitching coach Rich Dubee delivered a simple message.

Leadoff walks will kill you.

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"Not a whole lot needed to be said," Lidge said.

Rusty command is a problem that has plagued the veteran righthander throughout the first month-and-a-half of the season.

In 13 appearances, Lidge is 0-1 with a 8.53 ERA, 15 strikeouts and nine walks in 12 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .283 against him, nearly 100 points higher than they hit last season, when he saved all 41 of his opportunities and established himself as one of the most valuable players on the Phillies' title-winning team.

The good news, however, is that Lidge says he is getting closer to where he needs to be, despite the fact that he has allowed five runs in four appearances since returning from a bout with knee inflammation.

"No one wants to give up runs or whatever, but I actually do feel really good right now, probably the best I've felt this year even before my knee was bothering me," Lidge said. "I'd say right now I feel the best, so that's big for me."

For now, Phillies fans looking for some peace of mind with regards to one of the most important arms on the team have only the word of Lidge and manager Charlie Manuel to go on. But both say his early struggles are shakable.

Certainly, Lidge's health has not helped matters.

His spring-training routine was delayed as he attempted to shake tightness in his arm that lingered from the offseason. Then, in the first road series of the season, he started feeling soreness in his right knee, which ultimately led to him being shut down for a week at the end of April.

All the while, Lidge was trying to correct a mechanical problem - he was dropping too low on his back side in the stretch - that he thinks may have contributed, or at least exacerbated, the knee problem.

"He needs work," Manuel said. "[Sunday] he was a little bit better. The ball looked like it was coming out of his hand a little bit better. His velocity looked a little bit better. The walk, I definitely think that got him in trouble. But also, he needs work. He's not sharp yet. His command is not real good. His stuff is just now starting to get back where it should be."

Interestingly enough, the Phillies have not needed Lidge in many pressure-packed situations this season. Since blowing his first save as a Phillie on April 18, Lidge has pitched in just one save situation. He walked two and allowed one hit before ultimately recording his fourth save in a 6-4 win over the Marlins on April 25.

His last four outings have been non-save situations. Last year in non-save situations, Lidge posted a 3.18 ERA, striking out 33 and walking 14 in 28 1/3 innings. Opponents hit .240 against him in such situations. In save situations, on the other hand, he posted a 1.10 ERA and held opponents to a .171 batting average.

"One way it's good to not have all these save situations, I had an opportunity to get lots of work in, and I feel like I'm right about there to where I want to be," Lidge said. "It's definitely taken some work. I've had to make some adjustments, but right now it is coming out of my hand about as good as it can."

Now, the Phillies hope, the results will follow. *

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.