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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Patience with Pitchers Needed

Last night rattled plenty of Phillies fans after Brad Lidge blew another save against a terrible Pittsburgh Pirates team. It was especially disheartening because the Phils had come from behind to take the lead in the ninth inning.

So, of course, today the phone lines at the sports talk stations are busy with fans proclaiming Lidge is done. Forget last year, it’s all about now, and we need a new closer.

These are likely the same general managers in waiting who are convinced Cole Hamels shouldn’t be in the playoff rotation.

I’ll admit last night really started to shake my confidence in my theory that the team has to stick with Lidge. It’s pretty clear the closer caught lightning in a bottle last year, and his numbers are a bit frightening right now. I’m not suggesting Lidge should be etched in stone as the guy who comes into every save situation, but there are two factors that I think are being completely overlooked right now.

The fact is that Lidge was coming in for the fourth straight game. Right now, there was no reason for Charlie Manuel to have put Lidge into an appearance in four consecutive games considering his struggles. He had three straight saves. They weren’t great, shutdown saves, and one took a miracle triple-play to nail down (although errors had put the save in jeopardy in the first place), but they were saves.

Like it or not, and certainly Philadelphia won’t tolerate this notion, I think the team has to baby the guy through this season. Fans that have become so fond of puffing out there chest and proclaiming that “it’s not about last year” can relax. No, it’s not about rewarding Lidge for last year’s perfection in save situations leading to a World Series Championship.

It’s about winning another World Series this year. Lidge is the only option who, if he can get back into a groove or whatever you want to call it, has a realistic chance to fill the closer role well enough to get the Phillies to a second straight championship. There is no one currently on the roster who has a history of success as a closer. Throwing Ryan Madson or Chan Ho Park into the closer role is more of a roll of the dice than hoping Lidge can get back on track.

The only proviso to my argument is Brett Myers. It’s a huge “if,” but if Myers can come back by September 1 and start performing in the set-up role, I would consider rolling the dice with him if Lidge continues to struggle. (Update: Myers is still available for the postseason even though he was not called up by September 1, though the Phils will have to make a roster move to put him on the 25-man roster.)

There may actually be less statistical reason to support being patient with Hamels. Certainly, Cliff Lee’s acquisition has moved Hamels to the “number 2” position in the rotation. But Hamels was the unquestioned ace of the staff prior to that, not to mention the World Series MVP last season. Talent rarely disappears overnight, and the odds are Hamels will get back on track sooner rather than later.

Even if it is “later” for Hamels, there is no way he should be any lower than second in the playoff rotation. First of all, he has simply proven that he has more talent than any starter on the roster except for Lee. That may change, but it’s certainly not going to happen by October.

Fans suggesting that Hamels shouldn’t be in the playoff rotation at all, or that he should be the 4th guy, are nuts. You simply do not do that to a guy that dominated in the playoffs just last year, especially a guy that has shown some signs of being sensitive. Besides that, there’s no one currently in the rotation that would warrant dropping Hamels below second. Joe Blanton is a nice pitcher, but he’ll never be better than Hamels. Odds are extremely good that Pedro Martinez is never going to reach those heights again at this point in his career. J.A. Happ was a guy that fans couldn’t wait to trade in a package with every prospect in the farm system for Roy Halladay just one month ago. It makes no sense to suggest that Happ’s now ready to replace Hamels.

Doing nothing except hoping for the best is never a very attractive option, but I don’t see another realistic one for the Phightin’ Phils.

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