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Could The End Be In Sight For Brad Lidge?

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On Friday, the Phillies announced that Brad Lidge will start the 2011 season on the disabled list.

This Brad Lidge photo: AP/Courtesy of CSNPhilly.com.marks the third time in four years that the Phillie closer will celebrate opening day on the DL. The problem this spring began with his biceps tendon and moved discouragingly, into his all-important right shoulder.

The usual reaction from the front office and Lidge when these types of things happen is a reassurance that there is nothing to worry about.

For years, both parties have downplayed each and every one of Lidge’s injuries. But this time, what we heard from Lidge was, “I’m a little concerned because I haven’t had shoulder problems in the past”. Equally worrisome was Ruben Amaro’s assessment that, “It’s all concerning, of course. We don’t think it’ll be a long-term issue, but it could be."

For the 34-year-old Lidge, the first sign of a shoulder problem doesn’t necessarily mean he has reached the end of the road.

However, let’s just say that, from where he is standing, the view of that horizon is getting clearer.

The architect of one of the most legendary seasons in Phillies history has had some rough stretches since that amazing 48-for-48 campaign in 2008. His struggles in 2009 were painful to watch, as was the early part of his 2010 season.

Lidge began 2010 by having surgery on his throwing elbow. It was the fourth surgery of his career (the previous three were all knee procedures), and it led to an ERA of 5.57 in Lidge’s 25 appearances before the month of August.

Lidge did rebound pretty nicely in August and September, but even his most loyal supporters could see that his success was more a product of craftiness than dominance. The fastball that once had everyone watching the scoreboard for radar numbers was topping out at just above 90 mph while his once-unhittable slider was not biting nearly as hard as it once had.

Now, in the final year of his three-year, $37 million deal, Lidge is once again off to a dubious start. Before being shut down on Friday, Lidge had only appeared in six spring games, and was getting hit pretty hard in most of them. Although most pitchers are not at peak velocity this early in a season, Lidge’s heater was “chilling” in the mid-to-high 80‘s on the radar gun.

Clearly, Lidge’s shoulder problems this spring didn’t help with his velocity, but he is a pitcher who can ill-afford to lose much more of his “stuff” going forward. Everyone knows that Lidge has made a career of keeping players on their heels with a plus fastball and then putting them away with that hard-breaking slider. But, if Lidge has to set up his slider with a fastball that can barely crack 90 mph, it could mean disaster for him and the Phillies.

The thing that makes any questioning of Lidge’s future so difficult is that fact that he is one of the nicest players on the Phillies roster. In good times and bad, he has always been a stand-up guy. This is an even more admirable quality for a player whose job is to handle the type of pressure that would cripple most athletes.Could the end be near for Brad Lidge? Photo: AP

You see, good closers are wired to think one way and one way only. They believe that they will get the next out no matter what happened with any of the batters that preceded it.

Lidge represents that mentality as well as any pitcher in recent memory. He always wants the ball, he believes in his stuff, and he utterly refuses to question his role as the team’s stopper. If you‘re a manager, you wouldn’t want a closer with any other makeup.

Unfortunately for Lidge, the other qualification for his job is one that mental toughness can‘t affect. It’s the arsenal of pitches and the dominating stuff that will get outs in crucial situations.

For Lidge, that stuff may disappearing more quickly than he or the Phillies would like to admit. And when that happens, no amount of intensity or aggression can fill the void.

No one is looking for crafty closers. It’s pretty hard to close the door on opponents with an 88 mph fastball and a looping slider that is either out of the strike zone or very hittable when in it.

It‘s enough to make you wonder if 2010 could really be the last hurrah for Brad Lidge. It’s hard to picture him doing anything other than closing. Neither his skill set nor his mindset are suited for set-up work, and he is not likely to be in demand as a free agent stopper if he continues to age as he has.

As someone who respects Lidge as a person and an athlete, I don’t know that I want to see him in a role other than as a meaningful closer. I don’t want to remember him in any other way than in that celebratory kneel with raised arms from the 2008 World Series.

However, we may have no choice but to accept that Brad Lidge’s days as a top closer are soon to be over. Let’s hope that he regains his health as he did in 2010, and that his last season here is befitting of the man who has brought so much to the Phillies franchise and its followers.

 

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com.   You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net  

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Photos: AP and www.CSNPhilly.com