THERE WILL BE several more tests between now and whenever it is that Brad Lidge finally makes his return to the ninth inning of a game. But the closer gave himself a passing grade on his first one, which occurred yesterday at Citizens Bank Park a few hours before the first pitch.
Lidge, on the disabled list since June 7 with a case of inflammation in his right knee, threw off the mound for the first time since suffering his sixth blown save of the season against the Dodgers on June 6. The righthander threw about 30 pitches, and said he felt no pain in the knee, something he hasn't been able to say since the first week of the season.
"I'd consider today pretty successful," said Lidge, who was 0-3 with a 7.27 ERA and 13 saves when he was placed on the DL. "I went down to the bullpen and completely pushed off my back leg without any pain at all. And that's more than I've done for a while. We have to make sure that it doesn't start feeling bad tomorrow, but I don't think it will. Being able to push off like that, letting it go toward the catcher without thinking about it, for me that's big-time progress."
Lidge is scheduled to throw off the mound again tomorrow, at which point he will increase his pitch count to around 45. If all goes well, a stint in the minor leagues could follow, possibly as soon as this weekend, although Lidge admitted that was only a guess.
Team doctor Michael Ciccotti injected Lidge with his second cortisone shot of the season last Tuesday, something Lidge believes has helped to clear out the inflammation.
While it is unlikely Lidge will be ready to return on June 23, when he is eligible to be activated from the DL, he is optimistic that he isn't far away.
"I don't know if it will be right at the end of the 15 days. I think that's in 5 days now. It's gone slow, but it's gone quick," Lidge said. "All of a sudden, here we are, 5 days left. I've still got to get some work in and face some teams on some rehab outings for sure, face hitters a couple times. We're going to try not to have it be too much longer."
Chan Ho Park's return to the bullpen, where he spent the majority of last season with the Dodgers, got off to an inauspicious start when he allowed five runs on eight hits in his first three relief appearances. The bulk of that damage was inflicted June 2 in a 10-5 win over the Padres in which he allowed four runs in the seventh inning of a blowout.
Since then, however, Park has looked very much like the pitcher the Phillies thought they were getting when they signed him to a 1-year, $2.5 million contract in the offseason. He entered last night having pitched eight innings in his previous four appearances, allowing no earned runs, striking out eight and walking one. The Phillies view Park as the type of pitcher who can help them both in long relief - witness the three scoreless innings he pitched in a win over the Dodgers June 7 - and in crucial, late-inning situations - witness the eighth inning of the Phillies' 5-2 loss to the Red Sox Friday, when he struck out the only two batters he faced.
Pitching coach Rich Dubee said Park's velocity has improved since his seven-game stint as a starter, when he went 1-1 with a 7.29 ERA.
"I think he brings tremendous value to our club out of the bullpen," Dubee said. "His tempo is much better. His arm plays bigger. It's getting Chan to accept it, and I think he is starting to understand that he has a chance to be a valuable piece to a winning team."
Leftfielder Raul Ibanez was back in the lineup after missing Sunday's finale against the Red Sox with a sore Achilles' tendon . . . The Phillies entered last night needing to win just two of their 12 remaining interleague games to better last year's 4-11 mark against the American League . . . An ounce of prevention: A pink sign plastered above a stairwell leading from the home clubhouse to the field is reminding players to "Bring your passports on the road trip!!" The Phillies leave Monday for a 10-day road trip, which includes a three-game swing north of the border at Toronto . . .