The Phillies' third choice to be the closer at the start of the season has moved to the top of the depth chart, and, according to manager Charlie Manuel, he is likely to remain there.
A day after Ryan Madson converted his eighth save in as many opportunities Friday night against the Texas Rangers, Manuel declared that he had no plans to change anything - even when his first two choices, Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras, return from the disabled list.
"Madson, right now, he's pitching good," Manuel said Saturday. "He's pitching as good as I've ever seen him, and his stuff is as good as I've ever seen it. He's doing real good, and right now I can't see me touching that. I think that situation will play out."
Contreras, on the DL since April 22 with an elbow injury, could be close to returning after throwing another inning Saturday night on a rehabilitation assignment at double-A Reading, where he gave up two hits and a walk to load the bases in the seventh, then got a force-out at the plate and a fly-ball out to end the inning. He will pitch again Monday at triple-A Lehigh Valley.
When Contreras landed on the disabled list, he had thrown eight scoreless innings and converted all five of his save opportunities.
In his first rehab outing at single-A Clearwater Wednesday, Contreras surrendered three runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning. The result did not concern pitching coach Rich Dubee.
"I'm looking to see how his arm responded," the pitching coach said. "He played great long-toss the next day, didn't have any issues, was back here with a big smile on his face, and was feeling good."
Lidge, out since the start of the season with a strained right rotator cuff, also is inching his way back. He will throw his second bullpen session before Sunday's game at Citizens Bank Park, then fly to Clearwater, Fla., where he will continue what amounts to his personal spring training.
"He'll get into baseball activities and start getting into [fielding practice] and stuff he hasn't done," Dubee said.
Though Lidge has been the Phillies' closer the better part of the last three seasons, he seems to understand that Madson has earned the right to remain in the role.
"I really have no idea what to expect," Lidge said. "I haven't thrown a big-league game since the playoffs last year. So, if nothing else, I know I won't be closing right away. Ryan's done an incredible job, and he's closing games as good as anybody in baseball. I would expect whatever Charlie thinks is best for the team is what he's going to do."
What Manuel thinks is best is obvious.
"I'm not ready to change that right now," Manuel said.
Dubee believes it has helped Madson that neither Contreras nor Lidge is around.
"There's no longer a real threat at this moment," Dubee said. "There isn't another guy behind him. There were always options before, and now it's just Ryan Madson. Clearing the air that way has helped him a lot. He's much sharper, baseball-wise. He knows when he has to throw a strike and when he doesn't have to throw a strike, and he can stretch the strike zone. And he's just more aware of being a complete pitcher. His presence has been phenomenal."
Chase Utley played in his fourth consecutive game at Clearwater on Saturday night (2 for 5, RBI), and it appears as if he could make his return to the active roster for Monday night's game against Cincinnati.
"He's getting closer and closer," Manuel said. "When he's ready to go, he'll tell us. I trust him. He knows how he feels. Like I said, I think the biggest thing is to see how he bounces back after playing two or three days [straight]. I think that will be the big test for him."
Utley's ability to play a fourth straight game for the first time certainly was a good sign. Manuel was asked whether he planned to ease Utley back in by giving him more days off than he has in the past.
"I'm going to bring him into the office and talk to him, and I'm going to hear what he has to say," Manuel said. "And then we'll go from there. I know we're going to have to give him some time off, and it might be one on and one off, or two on and one off, or whatever. But I think Utley and I can communicate with one another good enough that we'll find the best way to play him."
Though Manuel would not commit to where Utley will hit in the Phillies' struggling batting order, the most likely position is third, because that's where he has hit most of his career.
"More than likely, he'll be in the three hole," Manuel said.
Righthander Joe Blanton was not placed on the disabled list, but his turn in the rotation is scheduled for Tuesday against Cincinnati, and Lehigh Valley's Vance Worley remains the likely candidate to fill the role. . . . The Phillies will face Bronson Arroyo on Monday, Johhny Cueto on Tuesday, Travis Wood on Wednesday, and Homer Bailey on Thursday during their series with the Reds.