CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Phillies made a short road trip to Dunedin on Tuesday and crossed off another Grapefruit League game from the schedule.
The more relevant event took place in Clearwater, where the guy charged with putting the finishing touches on the anticipated works of art by the four aces climbed back on the mound for the first time in 11 days.
After being shut down by biceps tendinitis following a March 11 outing against Baltimore, Brad Lidge was encouraged by his one-inning stint against a group of Pittsburgh Pirates minor-leaguers. He pitched one scoreless inning, allowed one hit, and threw 16 pitches, including 12 for strikes.
"It actually felt really good," Lidge said. "I kind of thought I was a hair tentative right at the beginning, then everything started to feel good and I was able to throw all my stuff."
Lidge threw more sliders than fastballs, and the velocity on his fastball topped out at 87 m.p.h., but he was encouraged nevertheless.
"One thing that was really hard for me to do before this game was throw my fastball down," Lidge said. "I kept leaving them up, and my shoulder feels to the point now where I can angle my fastball again, and really for me that's the most important part of my pitching.
"Obviously, command and velocity are good, but for me if I have good angle on my fastball down, then I can get people to swing at my slider, and that's one thing I was able to do today and I felt really good about that."
If Lidge feels fine physically Wednesday, he said, he expects to pitch again Thursday, when the Phillies play the Minnesota Twins.
The small step Lidge took Tuesday did give the closer a sense of relief.
"I wasn't concerned about it, but there is obviously some level of concern if something isn't feeling right," he said. "To have a good outing where I felt strong and comfortable is really a relief. Now I'll be able to comfortably get my outings in before the season opens, assuming everything feels good after this. Obviously that's a big step for me to get ready" for the April 1 season opener.
Lidge proved during the second half of last season that he could be effective without throwing his fastball at 95 m.p.h., but his velocity is down from the 90 m.p.h. he was throwing late last season. He believes some of his velocity will be restored by the adrenaline rush he'll get from throwing in games that mean something.
"Whenever the season starts, it will be a few extra clicks higher than wherever it ends up here," Lidge said. "Sometimes it is even more than that and sometimes it's not as much. I would like to be throwing harder than when my shoulder was bothering me. I want to try to get somewhere close back to 90, but if I'm throwing 88 or 89 I'm not going to panic, and if I'm throwing 91 or 92 I'll be happy with that."
Lidge is hoping to get back-to-back outings in before the start of the season, but he will not be overly concerned if he does not.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism about Lidge is that his slider appears to be in midseason form. He used that pitch to strike out the first batter he faced Tuesday, and it was consistently sharp in his return performance.
"I think I've gotten to the point that I've become so comfortable with my slider that I've been so fortunate that it has just kind of been there this spring," he said. "I threw it a ton last year and I just kind of rolled right into it this spring. That left the angle on the fastball as the most important thing I have to work on, and fortunately today it felt real good."