NEW YORK - It's still a simple matter of trying to record three outs without allowing a runner to cross home plate. Still 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to the plate. Everything about pitching in the ninth inning is exactly the same as pitching in the eighth.

Except that it isn't.

Never has been. Never will be.

"Big difference. Huge difference," Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen, a former big-league reliever, explained. "If you've ever seen the Great Wallenda walking a tightrope between two tall skyscrapers, that's the closer. The setup man goes across there in the eighth and he's got a net. In the ninth inning, there's no net.

"Think about it. If you're doing a tightrope walk between two 100-story buildings, there's comfort in having a net. There's comfort in knowing that closer's behind you. When you're in the ninth inning, there ain't nobody behind you. And that's a big difference."

The subject was on the table in the wake of the news that closer Brad Lidge has been placed on the disabled list with a right knee sprain and that Ryan Madson has been given a battlefield promotion as the guy Charlie Manuel will turn to in save situations.

The Phillies say Madson, who didn't appear in last night's 6-5 loss to the Mets at Citi Field, will do just fine.

They say it because they fervently believe it.

And they fervently believe it because, well, they really don't have much choice right now.

The way baseball is played these days, the closer inhabits a crucial role. All the Phillies had to do yesterday evening was look across the field to the opposite dugout. Last season, if all games had ended after eight innings, the Mets would have easily won the division. The Phillies wouldn't have won the World Series. They might not have even made the playoffs.

And the fact of the matter is that no matter how much confidence the Phillies have in Madson, confidence firmly rooted in how well he's pitched, no team can ever be sure, really sure, how a setup reliever will perform in the cauldron of the ninth inning until he actually goes out and does it.

"There's a big difference," Manuel said. "I've been in this game a long time and I think the ninth inning is different than the eighth. I think the eighth is different from the seventh. I've seen guys over the years that can handle the sixth and seventh, but they can't handle the eighth. I've seen guys who can handle the eighth, but, for some reason, they can't handle the ninth."

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. agreed. "You can't replace a closer," he said. "You don't know how guys are going to react in those situations. We'll see how things play out."

The cautious optimism is based on a couple of factors, the most important being that Madson had the experience of pitching in pressure-packed situations in the postseason last October.

"He pitched in the most important games we've had over the last several years. Is he going to be perfect? Probably not," Amaro said. "[But] he probably has a little bit more of an inner strength than he's had. There's a time when players go through a period of, 'Can I really do this?' And I think Ryan's kind of gotten over that hump the last year-and-a-half where you can tell when he takes the mound he really thinks he's going to get the job done."

The new role isn't completely foreign. He has three save opportunities this season and has converted two of them. As the setup man, he's sometimes had to face the heart of the order in the eighth . . . and gotten them out. He's unscored on in 22 of his last 23 appearances.

By all accepted yardsticks, he blossomed last season. "His stuff is much better, plays up higher. His fastball is so much better than it was 2 years ago. He came into his own last year as a setup guy," Manuel said.

"If you remember, he was having trouble being consistent in the setup role. Then last year when his velocity started getting up over 93, got to 95 or 96. And at the end of the year he was throwing 98, 98. And that not only helped his confidence, it helped his changeup and his slider. He's got some more weapons than just his changeup now. He's got a fastball, he's got a cutter, he's got a slider."

Now all he's got to do is demonstrate that those pitches will translate from the eighth to the ninth.

Madson shrugged off the idea that his baseball life is about to undergo a sea change, at least temporarily.

"I'm just going to go out there and just throw the ball the way I've been throwing it, being aggressive and letting the defense do its job," he said. "It is different if you're not ready for it. If you're prepared for it and you know if that situation comes up in the ninth that you'll be ready for it."

It's probably just as well that Madson is pretending that pitching in the ninth inning is exactly the same as pitching in the eighth.

Even though everybody knows that it isn't. *

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