Only seven apppearances into the season, Brad Lidge has already logged more consecutive scoreless outings than he did during his 2009 campaign. The veteran righthander, who went 0-8 with 11 blown saves and a 7.21 ERA while battling elbow and knee inflammation last season, pitched a perfect ninth inning yesterday to preserve a 5-5 tie, his sixth straight scoreless inning since he allowed a solo home run to the Mets' Rod Barajas in his first appearance of the season back on April 30.
Only once last season did Lidge log more than three consecutive scoreless outings - a five-game stretch from May 26 to June 1 that proved to be a brief oasis in the worst year of his 9-year career.
During this current streak, he has retired 18 of the 20 batters he faced, his only baserunners coming on a single and an intentional walk.
But it is his methodology that has been most impressive. Of the 14 pitches he threw yesterday, eight were sliders, including five straight to Scott Hairston and Jerry Hairston Jr., one of which prompted a swinging strikeout on a 3-2 pitch.
Hairston Jr. flew out to centerfield on a slider for the second out of the inning. Lidge then jammed Adrian Gonzalez on a 1-1 inside fastball - set up by a slider called for a strike - to end the frame.
Now, the key is keeping the big-money closer healthy.
Lidge was making his second appearance in 3 days - he warmed up but was not used Saturday night after pitching a perfect ninth inning in a 3-2 win over the Padres on Friday for his second save of the season - and his fourth since being activated from the disabled list for the second time.
He pitched well in three appearances from May 3-9, but went back on the disabled list after the soreness returned. But Lidge said soon after receiving a cortisone shot to combat the most recent case of inflammation, Phillies reliever Chad Durbin noticed that he was holding the ball closer to his head while playing catch, which isn't his natural arm slot.
"Fortunately, I have a good catch partner," said Lidge, who had two surgeries this offseason, one to repair the flexor tendon in his elbow and one to repair the meniscus in his knee. "I didn't want to make a big deal of it, but he told me, 'For some reason this year, when you are playing catch, your hand is closer to your head.' That immediately set off alarm bells, because whenever I've done that in the past, I've had problems. It's probably because I had the surgery and babied it coming back, got into a habit, and started doing it. After he told me that, we got my hand away from my head, and since then it's felt great. It's my normal arm slot."
Inside and outside the Phillies organization, there has never been any dispute about the potential of Phillippe Aumont's right arm. What he does with that arm is another story. Yesterday, the Phillies sent the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade down to Class A Clearwater, where they hope he will have an easier time working on his delivery. Aumont struggled with his command at Double A Reading, walking an average of 6.9 batters every nine innings while going 1-6 with a 7.43 ERA in 11 starts.
The 21-year-old righthander, whom the Phillies acquired from the Mariners along with centerfielder Tyson Gillies and righthander J.C. Ramirez in exchange for Lee, spent all of 2009 as a reliever in the Mariners organization, posting a 3.88 ERA with 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.1 walks per nine innings in 44 appearances at Class A High Desert and Double A West Tennessee.
Already in Clearwater is Ramirez, who has pitched relatively well in nine starts, going 3-2 with a 4.10 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. Gillies, on the disabled list since mid-May with tightness in his left hamstring, has hit .247 with a .291 on base percentage, two home runs, two doubles, one triple and one stolen base in 24 games at Reading.