SOMETIME BEFORE sundown, at a hulking ballpark nestled between congested freeways and auto-body shops, Brad Lidge will pick up a baseball and try to throw it. And with that simple act, for better or worse, the soap opera that has been the Phillies' season will take yet another plot twist.

If all goes well when the closer tests his hyperextended right elbow before tonight's game against the Mets at Citi Field, the bullpen just might be well-girded for the stretch drive and the playoffs that loom like a pot of gold beyond. At least as girded as that notoriously fickle sector of any team can be.

If not, a large portion of the team's hopes and dreams will fall on the slender shoulders of Ryan Madson.

After a year-and-a-half of dealing with (take your pick from the following menu) physical, mechanical and/or confidence issues, Lidge seemed to have steadied himself. In his previous 17 games, he was 11-for-12 in save opportunities, with an 0.55 earned run average.

Everything was fine and dandy until Tuesday night, when, with the game on the line in the ninth, he never budged in the bullpen.

He says he's fine. The Phillies say they believe him. And there's a chance that this will turn out to be nothing more than a false alarm.

The only problem is, Lidge always says he's fine, even when he knows deep in his heart he's not.

"It's not so much trying to trick people as it is really trying to convince yourself as well," he explained before spring training. "You've got to sell yourself on that. Otherwise, there's no reason to go out there."

Which is perfectly understandable. It also means this remains an open question until and unless he proves that he really is healthy.

That's why Madson is so crucial. He's been great of late: 0.72 ERA in his previous 25 appearances. The Phillies have said for years that he has the right stuff to be a closer someday. At the same time, even Charlie Manuel acknowledged that you never know for sure until a guy actually goes out and does it.

"The only way you know is to send him out there for a season and see if he can hold his own. That's how you know. To me, a guy who's a legit closer is a guy who's done it. There's an old saying that you earn your wings," the manager said.

The reality is that Madson has, through a variety of circumstances, been given truncated auditions as the closer before. The results have been mixed. So if a battlefield promotion is required here, there's no way of knowing for sure how he will respond.

Even if he pitches, well, lights out, it doesn't solve all the potential bullpen issues. With Lidge in the ninth and Madson in the eighth and some combination of Chad Durbin, Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and maybe Antonio Bastardo in the seventh, the Phillies are well-armed for the decisive innings. They can shorten the game, as baseball people like to say.

Without Lidge, Manuel has one fewer back-of-the-bullpen option, and everybody has to take one step up into a more pressurized spot. Contreras has been really good or really bad this season. Romero's command fades in and out like a faraway radio station. Durbin has been dependable when not overworked. Bastardo has the arm but not much experience.

That's why Lidge's side session tonight will be so closely monitored. And why Madson could end up being a huge key to the rest of the season if it doesn't go well.

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