NEW YORK - The only downside of what Brad Lidge accomplished as the Phillies' closer in 2008 was that he put together an act no one could follow, Brad Lidge included.
Here we are, a little more than two months into the season after the season, and Lidge has been placed on the disabled list, not altogether willingly, as he tries to soothe an inflamed right knee and fix a balky set of mechanics that has led to six blown saves.
For a team like the Phils, with an average starting rotation and a very good bullpen, every lead handed to the relievers has to turn into a win. That hasn't been the case so far, and, for the moment anyway, the role of last man standing has shifted from Lidge to Ryan Madson.
The switch is temporary - at least, that's the plan - but as long as it lasts Madson will be arguably the most important pitcher on the team as it careens toward the middle of the season.
Madson picked up his second straight save last night in the Phils' extra-inning, 6-3 win over the Mets. He got the opportunity after Raul Ibanez blogged one over the fence in right-center to break open a tie game and provide another come-from-behind win.
"These were good tests for him," manager Charlie Manuel said. "In New York, with these fans and this atmosphere, it was very good. He has the ability and he's getting the experience and there's no reason why he can't be the closer."
As long as it works, Madson will keep going out there. J.C. Romero would be another option, as would a closer-by-committee formula. Whatever works, obviously, but this - with Madson finally reaching his career stride - just might be the answer, for now and maybe for later, too.
"We want to give Brad as much time as he needs so he doesn't rush back because we're screwing it up out there," Madson said. "That's the goal."
The new role for Madson is a long way from where he was at the beginning of last season, coming off a spotty and injury-plagued start to his career and challenged in spring training by pitching coach Rich Dubee to finally live up to his arm.
By the end of 2008, Madson had come around, adding some velocity to his fastball and establishing himself as a reliable setup man for Lidge's ninth-inning masterpieces.
"I firmly believe that sitting down there in the bullpen on a nightly basis with Lidge, Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre, Romero, and those guys telling him exactly how good he is, and how they would love to have what he has in terms of weapons, I think Ryan started to understand just how big his potential is," Dubee said. "The more he went out and had success, the more his confidence grew."
That carried over into this season, and now Madson has been given the job of carrying it just one inning deeper into the game.
"I don't think there's going to be any difference for him between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth inning," Eyre said. "With J.C. out for the first 50 games, he was going to be the eighth inning guy no matter what. It's your inning. When he warms up, there ain't nobody else warming up. So he's had this role, but there will just be a nine there instead of an eight."
Last night, the number was a little different. It was the 10th inning and Madson had a three-run cushion, so the pressure wasn't quite as great. But it was still the Mets and the chance to put away the series win, close out a 7-3 road trip, and allow the team to match its largest division lead of the season. And so that's what he did, finishing it off with a strikeout of Alex Cora.
Maybe he won't be the Brad Lidge of 2008, but neither will anyone else, at least not for a long time. But just being the Ryan Madson of 2009 might be good enough.
"The mental part of what Brad did last year was inconceivable," Madson said. "Every day, everybody's watching, waiting for you to [blow a save], and you're thinking about it. And he never did. The mentally tough part is what I took from it."
It is possible the organization doesn't mind getting an extended look at Madson as a closer, just for future reference. Nothing lasts forever in baseball, even a force as dominating as Lidge was in 2008. Madson isn't looking to steal the role, but he does want to honor Lidge with his performance. A contract extension, signed during the off-season, has also helped Madson's confidence.
"I'm not living and dying with every pitch like I have every other year before," Madson said. "It was live and die with every pitch and looking behind your back to see who's going to take your spot. Would I be the same pitcher if I didn't sign? I don't know, but it helps you bounce back after a bad game, knowing you're still going to be out there."
And until further notice, he'll be out there at the very end, at the edge of the gangplank that closers must tiptoe along.
"He's got the mental makeup, without question," Lidge said. "My goal for the bullpen is that I'm not missed at all. If that's the case, we've done really good."
Perhaps 2009 can never be 2008, and maybe Ryan Madson can't really be Brad Lidge. But for a while the Phillies will try to believe. That's worked for them before.