I hope I’m not emasculating anyone here with an article that alludes to a “love story”, but if you’ve made it this far, then you may as well see it through to the end. Besides, it’s not your typical “love story”. You won’t find Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw in a bittersweet romance on this page, nor should you expect to. But what’s written here is love of a different sort.
It is the type of love that is born out of loyalty, one that comes from a shared experience that can never be forgotten. Particularly, it’s the story of Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and his talented, but troubled, closer Brad Lidge. If you’re a Phillies fan, the basics of this tale are easy to recollect: a courtship that began after the 2007 season ended, yielded a World Series title in 2008, and has, in 2009, been the touchiest subject in regards to the defending champions.
To understand its touchiness, you have to understand what the 2008 season was all about. After tasting the playoffs the previous season, the Phillies made an immediate move to bolster their roster, trading for closer Brad Lidge of the Houston Astros. Lidge, while erratic during his final season with the team, was immediately given the keys to the car in the form of the closer’s role. Charlie Manuel has proven to be a patient, faith-based manager. He encourages his athletes to make their own plays, including his unwavering green light for Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino to steal bases. This liberal approach extends to his bullpen, trotting the pitchers out to the mound in crucial situations, even if they’ve been shaky in recent outings. In 2008, there was nothing shaky about Lidge. Sure, he allowed base runners at times, but when you go 48 for 48 in the saves column (including 7 in the playoffs), that’s a fine accomplishment. Allowing just 15 earned runs in 72 regular season games for a 1.95 ERA, he was the ultimate security blanket. If the Phillies led after eight innings, they were certainly going to lead after nine. With his strikeout of Eric Hinske in the World Series, Lidge capped off an incredible season, one that’s going to be extremely hard to top.
2009. We’re still astonished….but in a completely different way.
Eleven blown saves. A record of 0-8. His ERA is 7.48. The batting average of his opponents is a shade over .300. The numbers do not lie. As nice as the 31 saves are, the stat is equivalent to having to reach into your septic tank to pull out a $20 bill. A stint on the disabled list for a sprained knee was hoped to be the answer to these issues back in June, but, before long, he was back to his lackluster performance. Manuel has tried other players in closing relief, particularly Ryan Madson, to let Lidge try and work through a mental block. Hasn’t helped. Yet, the skipper is still content to bring him in late in the game to try and save the day, hoping that the Brad Lidge who chugs in from the bullpen gate is the same one whose name is on the receipt of the 2008 World Series trophy.
It’s almost inconceivable that Lidge could have such a fall from grace this fast. It brings to mind the story of the man who won the lottery, only to watch his loved ones and personal life go down the crapper at an alarming pace. It almost seems as if Lidge sold his soul to have one Hall-of-Fame worthy season, and now is paying his debt to the Devil from here on out. When a Phillies fan like myself watched him play in 2008, none of us questioned whether Lidge would falter, or not, under the pressure of closing out the game. Even in the final World Series game, with the score 4 to 3 against Tampa Bay and a man on second base with one out, the collective thought was still “He’ll git em”. He did. Our faith in “Lights Out” Lidge was rewarded every time he came in relief. Now in 2009, everyone groans when his name is called. How do you go from being the heroic cowboy who comes over the hill to save the town at the end of the movie, to being a disoriented invalid that you’re hoping doesn’t have a debilitating stroke just walking out to pitch? As I said, it’s almost inconceivable.
But, like a faithful lover, Charlie Manuel refuses to dump Brad Lidge. He just can’t. Other than one time where Lidge put men on base and Chuck replaced him with Madson on September 8. After all of Lidge’s foibles, Manuel seemed to finally have enough. But it didn’t take long for it to become clear that Lidge still had the closer’s job. For one night, Manuel made Lidge sleep on the sofa, but returned to marital bliss rather quickly. Granted, the loss that Lidge incurred on September 23 to Florida is his first loss in two and a half weeks, and he does have three saves in between those losses, but it’s too close to the post season for comfort. What’s scary is that the Phillies don’t even have their berth for the playoffs locked up yet. What’s worse is that if Lidge had converted those eleven blown saves, the Phillies would already be in.
It’s likely that the Phillies will get in, however. But then what? In an ideal world, the bats will come to life and the Phils will have ten-run leads going into the ninth, but that sense of idealism is best left for LSD enthusiasts. There’s going to be situations where a save is needed. Does Manuel go with Lidge, knowing that the pressure of the playoffs far exceeds that of a three game road series in the middle of June? If Lidge is simply feeling complacent, then perhaps come playoff time, he’ll buckle down and show us the fire that makes him one of the deadliest closers in recent history. But if there’s a mechanical issue or a mental block that’s preventing him from being able to pitch at his best, then Manuel cannot take that risk. Chan Ho Park, Ryan Madson, Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers, and whichever starting pitcher (thinking JA Happ) doesn’t make the postseason rotation are all decent-to-good choices to be the executioner for the ninth inning. But it seems Manuel just can’t let go of Lidge.
Maybe it’s because Charlie knows that Lidge has been through this before. In the 2005 post-season, Lidge gave up a towering (and I cannot stress that word enough) home run to Albert Pujols that still might not have landed. The Astros would win that series, but something changed in Lidge after that. The way Pujols defiantly glared at him after his swing, because everyone knew it was a home run. Pujols didn’t have to watch the ball, and Lidge didn’t even need to turn around. When you put together all of the intangibles in this incident, they go a long way in explaining just how 2006 and 2007 became such disappointments. But once he was traded to Philadelphia, the slate was wiped clean. He was Brad Lidge, the sure thing, once again. All of the memories of failure in Houston were now past him, buried in a storage locker somewhere. Manuel knows that players can break slumps at any time. It just takes encouragement, patience, and a pat on the back. After all, he’s seen Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Pat Burrell all struggle at the plate at different times, only to come through when it mattered the most. Lidge can do it, thinks Charlie. He’s sure of it.
Manuel knows what it’s like to have someone lose faith in him, after all. When he managed the Cleveland Indians for two and a half seasons, he had a winning record. In 2000, they were 90-72, good for second in their division. A year later, they went 91-71, enough to capture the division title. His future seemed bright, but there’s a reason why his third year was just a “half”. After starting the 2002 campaign 39-47, Manuel was fired in mid season. It’s alleged that the termination came over a contract dispute, but the disappointing start likely played a role. The man had just made the post-season the year before, and was now looking for managerial openings on Monster.com. The fact that Manuel made a comeback in 2005 as the Phillies honcho, led them to two playoff runs, and netted them their first World Series win in twenty-eight years is proof that Cleveland may have made an error in judgment. If the Indians had let things be and kept ol’ Chuck around, they too could have tasted victory. But last year, Manuel made some people in that organization just a little ill when he won it all somewhere else. Vindication, certainly, tasted good for Charlie Manuel.
Manuel has seen what Lidge is capable of. We all have, right? That 2008 season isn’t going to leave our hearts anytime soon. Lidge, like Manuel was in 2002, has hit a slump. Charlie can either cut his losses, sit Lidge down, and go with someone else to finish off foes in the ninth, or he can keep telling Lidge “you’re my guy”. How would Charlie feel if, during this coming offseason, he dealt Lidge to another team and he suddenly renews his self-faith? If Lidge wins the World Series with his newest home, it would no doubt stick in Manuel’s craw for not keeping fidelity in his closer. We as fans would be crushed to see him do badly for us, and then do great for someone else. No doubt in my mind that it would crush Charlie Manuel the most.
Let’s just hope that both faith, as well as love, haven’t rendered Charlie Manuel blind.
When he isn’t watching WWE, TNA, or his beloved Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies, Justin Henry can be found writing. It is his passion as well as his goal in life to become a well-regarded (as well as well-paid) columnist or author. He tweets at twitter.com/notoriousjrh and facebooks himself at http://www.facebook.com/notoriousjrh.
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