CLEARWATER, Fla. - Here are the verities: At some point after the season opens a week from today, the Phillies will find themselves defending a late-inning lead. And Ryan Madson will be summoned from the bullpen to try to save the day.
This much we know is true because closer Brad Lidge will begin the season on the disabled list, still rehabbing offseason knee and shoulder surgeries.
It is what happens after Madson arrives on the scene, red lights flashing and sirens blaring, that remains shrouded.
He had his first extended chances to close last season, first when Lidge went on the disabled list, later when he was temporarily taken out of the role for a mental tune-up.
Madson ended up converting 10 of 16 save opportunities, just 62.5 percent, and his earned run average in those games was 5.82. Counting just the games when he entered in the ninth inning or later, his ERA was 6.00.
Taken at face value, those aren't numbers that seem likely to inspire a lot of confidence. Except that, even given the necessity to make lemonade out of lemons at times, the Phillies see something beyond the raw statistics.
They see that he made good on six of his last seven save tries. They see a 3.38 ERA in those games. In short, they see improvement, evidence that the experience he was getting then will only help him now.
"It's the same game, just a little more pressure at the end. And if you can overcome that, it will be fine," Madson said before his scheduled outing in yesterday's exhibition game against the Pirates at Bright House Field was rained out.
"Just treat it as another inning. I got into a little bit of a groove and got my confidence and realized that. So if I can just start that way, get that feeling that I had at the end of the year last year and just treat it like another inning, go out for each hitter and have fun with it, everything will be fine."
That's a distinct echo of what he said last June at Citi Field in New York after Lidge was sidelined by a sprained right knee and it was obvious Madson was going to have to fill in until further notice. He was right then. He's right now. He also learned that it's a lot easier to say you're going to approach the ninth as if it were the eighth. It's a lot harder to actually do it.
"Absolutely," he conceded. "Because the way I am, I want to go out there and prove to everybody that I can do it. So you put more pressure on yourself to do it. Instead of sitting back when you're comfortable. When I'm comfortable in the eighth inning, I'm not like that. So I need to treat it like just another inning and take that extra pressure off myself. It's not the pressure from the fans or teammates, it's pressure from myself."
Pitching coach Rich Dubee said he believes there are two important lessons Madson learned last year.
"Just being in the situation, I think. Handling his adrenaline and the environment in the stadium when it gets loud. That will help him greatly," he said. "That and understanding that people really try to attack him fast. They know he's a power guy and they're trying to get to him. And he was able to take advantage of hitters' aggressiveness at times. So I think it was a real good learning experience for him. And he's got all the stuff in the world to do it."
Charlie Manuel said the key to closing is to remain calm and not overthink the situation even though the game is on the line.
"I think sometimes he does think about it and he does get caught up in it, but that's only natural," the manager said. "Because the end of the game, that's what people talk about and make a huge deal about. Which it is, in some ways. The setup guys have to do their job to get to the closer and I think sometimes people don't see it that way. The ninth, for some reason, seems bigger and more important, because you're closing out the game."
In 2003, the Astros had a talented young reliever they were grooming to be a closer. Brad Lidge was given six save opportunities that year . . . and he blew five of them. He now has 195 career saves including a perfect 41-for-41 to help the Phillies win just the second world championship in franchise history in 2008.
"We all know [Madson's] stuff is as good as anybody's among the late-inning guys. And I think for him, the experience of last year will go a long way for him this year," Lidge said. "I thought he did fine for his first year getting in there. He probably learned a lot about how the ninth inning is a little different from the eighth inning. And now that he knows that, and with his stuff, I think he's going to do an excellent job. I mean, he's really capable of being a great closer."
The ripple effect is that Lidge doesn't feel the pressure to come back sooner than he's ready.
"Sometimes you assume that you're going to get back super fast. For me, it's kind of going slow. It's coming, but it's going slow," Lidge said. "So it's nice that I don't have to force anything right now. Because you see what happens to guys like [Twins closer] Joe Nathan and stuff like that. You don't want something to get a lot worse because you're rushing to get back."
Lidge isn't expected to miss more than 2 or 3 weeks. In the meantime, Madson is eager to apply the lessons he learned, some of them the hard way, in 2009.