Nine out of 10 big league general managers would agree that building a bullpen ranks among the most stressful demands of the job. All the variables and potential minefields make it difficult to maintain any degree of predictability from one year to the next.
Even by that standard, the 2009 Phillies have broken new ground.
During Philadelphia's memorable postseason run last October, the relievers were a lockdown, airtight monument to stability. The bullpen posted a 3-0 record and a 1.79 ERA as the Phillies dispensed with Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay for a championship. And the most enduring moment was closer Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske and dropping to his knees as catcher Carlos Ruiz rushed to embrace him.
What a difference a rising WHIP, seven bullpen disabled list visits and some battered confidence make. From one October to the next, the Phillies 'pen has gone from team strength to a Sasquatch-sized Achilles' heel. The ninth inning, once a signal for fans to wave their towels and scream, now elicits a sense of dread. And Lidge has been transformed from RoboCop to Paul Blart, Mall Cop.
So we'll acknowledge the elephant in the room right off the top: Does this group have what it takes to become Major League Baseball's first repeat champion since the Yankees won three straight titles from 1998 through 2000?
You didn't expect the Phillies to say "No," did you?
Although GM Ruben Amaro Jr. acknowledges "the numbers don't lie," he's hopeful Lidge can regain his "mojo" and the rest of the bullpen can fall in line behind him in time for the Phils to make a deep run through October.
"I'm taking the 'glass half-full' approach because I've seen these guys do it," Amaro said. "I've seen them have success. You hope they rise to the occasion and step up and do what they've done in the past."
It all starts at the back end with Lidge, whose travails are so pronounced because he had so far to fall. In 2008, he converted 41 straight save opportunities and seven more in the postseason, finished fourth in the National League Cy Young race and eighth in MVP voting. This year he's 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and a major league-high 11 blown saves, and the league has a .907 OPS against him.
Lidge was the toast of Philadelphia. And just like that, he's toast. When a closer goes from civic treasure to the 2009 recipient of Jayson Stark's National League Cy Yuk Award, you know it's been a rough season.
Theories abound. Lidge visited the disabled list with a sprained right knee in June, but that's apparently not a major factor in his performance of late. Lidge and the Phillies have also studied tape and discounted the possibility that he's tipping his pitches.
And of course, each rough stretch for Lidge elicits references to Albert Pujols' stunning home run in the 2005 National League Championship Series. That's Lidge's personal Groundhog Day.
Lidge -- a sensitive, introspective former Notre Dame marketing and economics major -- has won admirers by continuing to sign autographs, treat fans with respect and hold himself accountable for every failure. Each time he gives it up, he sits by his locker, waits for the reporters to assemble and stays to the bitter end of the grim postmortem:
• Lidge after allowing a game-winning single to Florida's Brett Carroll for his 11th blown save of the season: "It's incredibly frustrating. I'm disappointed. They hit the ball tonight. I'm a little bit at a loss."
• Lidge after a 4-3 loss to Atlanta in August: "It's frustrating, but I don't know what else to do other than just keep getting the ball and throwing it."
• Lidge after allowing a ninth-inning double to Andre Ethier to lose a game to the Dodgers in June: "It's frustrating. You want everything to go well, then something like that happens."
I'm taking the 'glass half-full' approach because I've seen these guys do it. I've seen them have success. You hope they rise to the occasion and step up and do what they've done in the past.
”-- Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. on his team's bullpen
That's three variations on Lidge and the "F" word. And if he's frustrated, just imagine how manager Charlie Manuel feels. During each ninth-inning implosion, a beleaguered Manuel leans over the top step of the dugout, removes his cap and quietly runs his hand across his scalp in exasperation. He's patented the old Bobby Cox maneuver.
In the meantime, Manuel, the Phillies and the team's fans cling to the hope that a light will click and the 2008 version of Lidge will magically reappear in the postseason. As far-fetched as that notion seems, several scouts told ESPN.com it's not just wishful thinking.
"It's not about stuff," said a National League scout. "He's throwing 95 [mph]. I saw him in Houston and he threw three straight sliders that just disappeared. Then he walked somebody and everything changed. I think he's just lost all his confidence. The mind is a fragile thing."
According to Fan Graphs, Lidge's average fastball velocity is 93.6 mph this season. That's down from his career high of 96.0 in 2005, but not a marked enough decline to make you think he lacks the zip to keep hitters honest.
The conventional wisdom is Lidge has to throw his fastball for strikes early in the count to get ahead and make hitters swing at the slider in the dirt. Oddly enough, Lidge has thrown 57.6 percent of first pitches for strikes this season, compared to 55.1 percent in 2008, so he's not in as many 1-0 and 2-0 holes as people think.
Finally, the perception is that Lidge loses faith in his fastball and gets too slider-happy when he's struggling. But the Fan Graphs breakdown shows Lidge is throwing his fastball 50.3 percent of the time compared to 43.4 percent last year. Problem is, he just doesn't know where it's going. That's a reflection of inconsistent mechanics that began with the knee problems and have continued throughout this season.
Before each appearance, as Lidge warms up in the bullpen, coach Mick Billmeyer reinforces the things he needs to do to be successful: Stand tall over the rubber. Work downhill. Stay on your line and drive your front shoulder toward home plate.
The problems come when Lidge flies open in an effort to manufacture velocity. His fingers are on the side of the ball, rather than on top, and he loses deception as well.
"I tell Brad -- and this gets his attention -- 'The more you run from your arm, the more they see you. You're real visible. They see the ball for 60 feet instead of 54 or 55,'" Billmeyer said. "His arm drags and it doesn't catch up, and he knows it."
If the Phillies' problems were confined to Lidge, Manuel might be able to devise a Plan B. But the rest of the bullpen has been ravaged by injuries, inconsistency and other disruptions.
J.C. Romero, the Phillies' prime lefty set-up man, missed the first 50 games after violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. Now he's out for the year with tendinitis in his elbow.
Chan Ho Park is out for the division series, at a minimum, because of a hamstring injury. At one point, the Phillies thought Brett Myers might be able to return from hip surgery and make a late run to reclaim the closer's job. But Myers recently strained his latissimus dorsi muscle, and he's just rounding into form.
Chad Durbin has walked 47 batters in 69 2/3 innings this season. Clay Condrey missed two months with an oblique strain. And Scott Eyre, the only established lefty in the 'pen, has to be monitored closely because he's pitching with "loose bodies" in his elbow.
That leaves Ryan Madson as the most dependable pitcher in the 'pen. But Madson is only 10-for-16 with a 1-3 record and 5.82 ERA in save situations, and that's prompted skeptics to wonder if he has the mental and emotional constitution to close.
#46 Relief Pitcher
Madson, for his part, claims to be getting more comfortable in the role each time out.
"I've said this a million times: Ring the phone, and whoever gets the call has to come in and get outs," Madson said. "That's what it boils down to. Just fill in the blanks around that."
A strong performance by the starting rotation in October would help mask the bullpen's deficiencies. If Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton can give the team seven solid innings, Manuel is prepared to cobble it together in the eighth and ninth.
Maybe the cavalry comes from an unexpected place. Righty Kyle Kendrick has looked good since his return from Triple-A ball, and could help out in long relief. "He reminds me of Zach Miner [of the Tigers]," said an AL scout. Pedro Martinez has said he's on board in the event the Phillies need help out of the bullpen. And lefty J.A. Happ, a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, could be available as an extra lefty to complement Eyre.
"He's got great deception, he'll throw the ball over the plate, and he doesn't scare," Amaro said of Happ. "All those things make you think he has a chance to be effective."
If Lidge ultimately fails, it won't be for lack of support. Billmeyer, the Phillies' burly, good-natured bullpen coach, is a strong believer that pitchers who exude a lack of confidence are at a huge disadvantage because hitters are like "sharks circling in the water." So he's constantly bolstering Lidge's spirits and reminding him how good he can be.
"Brad's not afraid of the hitters," Billmeyer said. "He just doesn't want to let his teammates down. I think he tries to do too much to help this team instead of taking care of his own area and tightening it down, so to speak.
"He's a guy that rides on confidence, and right now I see it in his face that he's starting to believe it again. The postseason is almost like a fresh start, and mentally that can help guys."
Saturday was a good day for Lidge. He received a standing ovation from the Citizens Bank Park crowd as he took the mound, then set down the Marlins in order for his third straight scoreless appearance.
Former Astros teammate Adam Everett, now playing shortstop in Detroit, said Lidge has friends throughout the game who are rooting for him to succeed in the postseason.
"I'm sure he's getting a ton of phone calls," Everett said. "Brad's one of the best teammates and best guys I've ever played with. He's an amazing guy, and he cares. He's not out there just collecting a paycheck. He genuinely cares and wants to do well."
In a results-oriented business, wanting and doing are two different things. Lidge is long on motivation, short on time and readily aware of the stakes: His performance will go a long way toward determining just how far the Phillies go in October.