LOS ANGELES - Charlie Manuel said it many times this summer and fall, no matter how dark and confusing Brad Lidge's season became. The manager believed that Lidge was his most talented reliever and should be the one to close important games.
Talk radio callers shrieked, bloggers blustered and columnists complained, but Manuel's belief in Lidge remained solid. And now, after the closer finished two one-run saves in the National League division series, looking meaner and more confident than he had since 2008, the question can be asked: Did Manuel fix Lidge in time for another World Series run?
After a perfect season last year, Lidge blew his first save as a Phillie on April 18, then failed to convert 10 more opportunities. Several events in September appeared to argue against the wisdom of using Lidge in further save situations - but Manuel's handling of the pitcher that month now looks like a successful improvisation aimed at preparing Lidge for the playoffs.
If Lidge does indeed reverse his ugly summer with a sublime postseason, the reliever deserves the most credit. But Manuel, in consultation with pitching coach and top lieutenant Rich Dubee, helped navigate a challenging situation.
The Lidge-fixing strategy began in earnest Sept. 8. That night, Lidge created a ninth-inning jam in Washington against the Nationals, and for the first time Manuel removed him for Ryan Madson to prevent a blown save. Madson successfully finished the game, ending Lidge's reign as the team's sole closer. Manuel announced in the dugout before the next night's game that Lidge would be used in a mop-up role while he worked to refine his pitches and regain his confidence.
Lidge was back in the ninth inning by Sept. 13, and he successfully closed three consecutive games. But a very messy night in Florida on Sept. 23 appeared to indicate that, despite his talent, Lidge could not be relied on in 2009.
With the Phillies hoping to reduce their magic number and clinch the National League East as early as possible, Lidge was asked to protect a 6-5 lead against the Marlins.
The game provided a perfect study of his issues. Confidence appeared to be primary among Lidge's problems as the season progressed. He did not throw his pitches with conviction or in the right instances.
Take Ross Gload's leadoff at-bat of that Sept. 23 game. Lidge opened the ninth as he had so many times this season, by throwing a slider for a ball. Behind in the count early, Lidge allowed hitters to assume they would see a fastball in the strike zone.
Fitting that pattern, Lidge's second pitch to Gload was a fat strike, and Gload smacked it for a double. Standing on the mound, Lidge did not appear intimidating or even confident. His face was red and sweaty; his eyes seemed to say I hope I don't blow this.
And when a pitcher thinks like that, he blows it. Lidge allowed two runs in the inning for his final blown save of the regular season. That game appeared to eliminate him from consideration as the team's closer, and Manuel refused to name anyone in that role from then on.
But he continued to say that he believed in Lidge's stuff. Knowing that confidence was the largest barrier to success for the pitcher, Manuel puffed him up and gave him the chance to work on his pitches during games.
Pitching mostly in long relief, Lidge fine-tuned his fastball and even added a cutter. As the month ended, he began to feel better and enjoyed a memorable celebration when Manuel called for him to earn the final out of the division-clinching game Sept. 30.
That moment, combined with the improvements in command and confidence, sealed what Lidge considered a turning point. "There was something about the last homestand," he said in a jubilant clubhouse at Coors Field after the Phils won the division series Monday. "Charlie had me in the clinching game, and it's a new season once the postseason starts."
For Lidge's sake, that is fortunate. In the regular season, he was 0-8, with 11 blown saves and a 7.21 earned run average (he also had 31 saves). Those numbers were stunning compared with his 2008 regular-season performance: 2-0 with a 1.95 ERA and a perfect 41 for 41 in save opportunities.
Faced with a situation that could undermine his hopes of a second championship, Manuel was forced to finesse the situation and search for a solution. With help from pitching coach Dubee, he navigated September in a way that prepared Lidge for division series success.
Now, entering the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team has more confidence in its closer than it has had since the beginning of the season. Lidge's year has been too messy to rule out the possibility of more setbacks, but if Lidge succeeds deep into October, his triumph will be even more satisfying for him and the team than last year's.