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Phillies' Madson has grown into the closer's role

WASHINGTON - The secret to Ryan Madson's success is going to remain a secret as long as he can help it.

Ryan Madson will be eligible for free agency after this season. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Ryan Madson will be eligible for free agency after this season. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

WASHINGTON - The secret to Ryan Madson's success is going to remain a secret as long as he can help it.

Willing to talk about almost anything, Madson invariably clams up as soon as the conversation turns toward his work on the mound.

Lately, of course, he has been a hot topic because of his emergence as the Phillies closer, a role his manager, pitching coach, and general manager all doubted he could perform just two short months ago.

During the final week of spring training, when established closer Brad Lidge was lost to an elbow injury that sent him to the 60-day disabled list, Manuel and the Phillies had to decide between Madson and Jose Contreras.

They were emphatic about their decision to go with Contreras, the 39-year-old veteran from Cuba who had spent one full season as a reliever. In the process, they also strongly questioned Madson's ability to do the job.

"Ryan Madson is Ryan Madson," pitching coach Rich Dubee told the Wilmington News Journal near the end of spring training. "What did he do, take a crash course on how to close or something?"

It may not have been a crash course, but apparently after struggling in previous flirtations with the closer role Madson now intends to remain married to registering the final out and shaking hands with his teammates.

Madson, who will be eligible for free agency after this season, said in spring training that he had an eye-opening conversation with his agent, Scott Boras, about the mentality of being a closer. Madson said at the time that he thought he always had to be perfect as a closer, which he has been in 12 save situations since taking over for an injured Contreras April 22 in San Diego.

Boras convinced Madson to approach things differently, and the reliever said the conversation remains a helpful guideline.

"Absolutely," he said before Wednesday's game against Washington at Nationals Park. "It's just the whole approach. It wasn't mental. Mental is such a broad term. People use it because it's easy for people to understand it. What he talked to me about I don't think people would understand unless they were in my position. I think it was about my personal approach to pitching and relief pitching and late-inning relief pitching.

"It was resetting a new way to approach late-inning relief pitching. The past things I said about mental and confidence and all that was just trying to get you guys to stop asking questions because I don't like talking about it."

When the conversation turned to Manuel's now referring to Madson as his closer, it ended quickly.

"We're just out there trying to get outs," Madson said. "Nobody has ever put labels on us out there."

Except that Manuel now does have the confidence to call Madson the Phillies closer.

"Am I Charlie?" Madson said before getting out of the cushioned folding chair in front of his locker and abruptly retreating to the trainer's room.

Dubee said there are no regrets about initially going with Contreras as the closer, which proved to be a solid decision. Before the veteran righthander was injured, Contreras had converted all five of his save opportunities without allowing a single run. In fact, he still has a 0.00 ERA and has allowed only four hits while striking out 11 in 102/3 innings. But his injury gave Madson one more opportunity to close, and he has made the most of it.

"Madson is our closer, and I don't see any reason in messing with it," Manuel said.

Why didn't the manager think Madson could do the job in the beginning of the season?

"Jose had a big spring, and Madson had a little soreness in his elbow," Manuel said. "Jose had a big spring, and he was ready to go earlier than Madson."

Dubee added, "At that moment, we felt it was the best way to go. We wanted to keep Ryan in a solid position. He hasn't been a real fast starter over the years. We put him in the eighth-inning spot and hoped he'd get off to a good run. The opportunity opened up for him to be the closer, and he has done a fabulous job."

Madson even showed his ability to handle failure after being tagged for a game-winning, three-run double by Cincinnati slugger Jay Bruce last month.

"I'm already past it," he said after that game. "Five years ago I'd have been hiding somewhere. Once you get on a good wave you want to stay there as long as you can. Now, it's time to get on another one."

Ability has never been the thing holding Madson back. He showed he had the arsenal of pitches to do the job a long time ago. But this is the first time he is consistently handling all aspects of one of the game's most difficult jobs.

"I think it's something he has acquired and grown into it," Dubee said. "It's experience. How do you get better at something unless you have the experience? And now he has had a few runs at this. I think the ability to draw on past experiences is tremendously helpful."

Exactly what the pitcher thinks is difficult to ascertain because Ryan Madson is Ryan Madson's least favorite subject. But bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer has spent a lot of time with Madson over the years and has watched the evolution.

"I think he learned to just pitch and back off on the emotion," Billmeyer said. "He kept hearing, 'Oh, he has trouble in the ninth inning,' and he listens to all that [stuff]. I think he's enjoying it. You can see him getting amped up at times, but he's mature now, and he knows when to back off.

"I've watched him for eight years. I saw him in the minor leagues when he was a starter, and he has matured in the game itself. He understands the hitters. He understands the pace of the game. He lets the game happen now because he understands it more. He knows when he can throw a ball and when he can throw a strike. He knows when to bury a change-up."

Billmeyer described Madson as a bullpen prankster who turns serious when the action begins.

"He goofs off," Billmeyer said. "He is goofy, but during the game, he watches the game because his livelihood is on the line when he gets out there. In between innings he's messing with the guys and fooling around. He has a good personality. He's probably my favorite guy of all-time in the bullpen."

Now, finally, Madson has become Manuel's favorite when the manager needs somebody to protect a ninth-inning lead. That means Ryan Madson is the Phillies closer whether he likes the label or not.