Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A.L. East Returns to Normalcy

After showing promise during the season's first six weeks, the Toronto Blue Jays finished off the worst road trip in franchise history with a 12-10 loss this afternoon in Baltimore. That would be an 0-9 road trip, for those of you keeping track at home. Today's game featured the Jays' bullpen blowing two separate two-run leads.

There are elements of the Blue Jays that are likable, even exciting. Marco Scutaro is having a great early part of the season, and the team's success has highlighted the abilities of Alex Rios and Vernon Wells, both of whom have long flown under the radar. Ace pitcher Roy Halladay is a man's man among aces, and it is bordeline criminal that a two-time World Series champion manager like Cito Gaston had to wait so long between managerial stints.

Having said all of that, Toronto has enough to be frisky, but not to remain a legitimate contender in the AL East over the long haul. The lineup depends too much on guys like Kevin Millar and Scott Rolen, who just aren't as good with the stick as they once were, and obviously, today's game in Baltimore highlights their bullpen deficiencies.

With Tampa Bay experiencing a bit of a World Series hangover, the division seems destined to come down to the usual suspects once again, with Boston weathering Big Papi's horrendous season and the Yankees hitting stride as the weather starts getting warmer.

However, there is good news, Blue Jays fans. You're finally off the road and back in the friendly confines of SkyDome, Rogers Center, whatever the name is now. But there's bad news too... the Red Sox will be waiting there for you.

What's Wrong With Brad Lidge?

I think Brad Lidge is hurt.

I don't care that he keeps taking the ball for the Phillies in save situations. Or that his pitching coach, Rich Dubee, said last week that "Brad Lidge's stuff right now is better than it was the last three or four months of last year." I can't prove it, but I think he's hurt.

Dubbed "Lights Out", Lidge spent the 2008 season playing the role of a hammer, while hitters all around the majors were his nail. Including the playoffs, Lidge was 2-0 with a 1.83 ERA and went a perfect 48 for 48 in save opportunities. He struck out 105 and allowed only 56 hits in 78.2 innings, and these numbers are even a bit skewed because of a couple of rough outings in non-save situations. To top it all off, he struck out Eric Hinske to end the World Series, setting off the type of party in the City of Brotherly Love that can only erupt after 100 combined championship-free seasons from the Phillies, Flyers, Sixers and Eagles.

However, 2009 hasn't been nearly so kind thus far to 2008's Mr. Perfect. As of today, Lidge has an ERA hovering around 9.00, and has already given up four more earned runs than he gave up in all of his appearances in '08. He's also converted only nine of 13 save opportunities after last year's perfect run.

So what happened? Major League history is littered with pitchers, especially short relievers, who have been great one year, only to come back the next year and, well, stink. In Philadelphia, Mitch Williams and Jose Mesa both followed up outstanding seasons with awful ones. Williams, the closer on the Macho Row squad of 1993, saved 43 games with a 3.34 ERA for the N.L. champs, but never again would appear in more than 25 games or post an ERA lower than 6.75. Joe Carter's home run aside, Williams has publicly stated that he was "done" by the end of the '93 season. Mesa posted a franchise-record 45 games with a 2.97 ERA in 2002, but came back and was dreadful in '03. How dreadful? How about a 6.52 ERA and losing his closer's role? Mesa was so bad that manager Larry Bowa wouldn't even put him in the game when the Phillies were at home as the 2003 season wound down. Mesa was 37 in 2003.

Lidge turned 32 in December. 32-year old closers who have just played out arguable the best season for a closer in Major League history don't just lose it. Yes, Lidge did work alot in 2008, like Mesa in 2002 and Williams in 1993, but Lidge's 2008 was only the fifth-highest combined (regular and post-season) inning total of his career. Lidge pitched 78.1 innings in 175 team games played, well in-line with his 162 game average of 71 innings pitched. Given all of this, the liklihood that he is out of gas following an extensive 2008 workload doesn't seem to hold much water.

So what's the issue? Lidge has a history of knee issues, and one recently flared up, causing him to adjust his mechanics and add orthotic insoles (shown to a national TV audience on FOX on Saturday) to the shoe of his right (push off) foot. Some, Dubee included, will point to Lidge's velocity and the bite on his slider as evidence that he's healthy.

True, his slider has looked good recently, including three nasty pitches to strike out Mark Teixiera in Saturday's loss to the Yankees. What concerns me, and what leads me to believe he's hurt, is that he can't locate his fastball at all. After striking out Teixiera, Alex Rodriguez stepped in, and after throwing nothing but sliders to make the count full, Lidge threw a fastball that was intended to wind up in the glove of catcher Chris Coste low and on the outer part of the plate to the righthanded-hitting A-Rod. However, the four-seamer was up, and continued to ride up on its 60 foot journey from mound to plate, and Hall of Fame hitters like A-Rod hit those pitches hard. A double in most parks was an opposite field home run for A-Rod in the Yankees new Arena Baseball league joke of a ballpark, and Lidge had his third blown save of the season. He went on to blow his fourth save of the season the next day.

My opinion of Lidge's fastball is not based on just the one that he threw to A-Rod. Far more disconcerting is that I can't remember the last fastball Lidge threw that a hitter swung at and missed. Armed with only the ability to locate his slider where he wants it, Lidge is at the mercy of Major League hitters laying off his devastating slidepiece and hammering the fastball which is all too often ending up in spots that Lidge doesn't want it.

Many don't believe Lidge is hurt. 610 WIP mid-day show host Anthony Gargano has reported on-air this week that he has talked to people with the Phillies, and they tell him that there is no injury to Lidge, no physical cause for concern, that he's just working through some things. Take that any way you want to. And when you take it, also take the memory of the Phillies acting as if everything was just fine with Chase Utley in 2008, only to announce two weeks after the championship parade that he was having hip surgery and might be out until June 2009.

I really do hope that Brad Lidge isn't hurt, but his recent history of knee problems and recent performances make it hard to believe.

Introduction to my blog

So I did it. After all these years of the internet, I caved and started my own blog. However, since I'm not a huge fan of these new fangled Twitters and MySpaces, I refuse to ever have an entry like "Getting donuts" or "Out walking Sparky in the park. It's such a beautiful day!"... You've read those posts, and you hate them, and admit it, part of you wants to post on the author's page and say "No one cares about your stupid donuts or your stupid dog."Anyway, since I know no one cares about similar events to this, I promise not to write about them.

What I will write about is something I've been passionate about for as long as I can remember. My subject is one that lends itself to lyricism, and that lyric quality translates across the written word, the radio or the TV. It's one that produces argument, and every once in awhile, agreement. It carries its' own language, sights, sounds and smells. It's a nearly constant companion to its devotees, and for eight months each year it feeds those dependent on it each and every day. It, is baseball...

I'll use this forum to write about my thoughts on all things Phillies and baseball related. Will anyone read it? I don't know. But I think it'll be fun to write it, so if anyone else reads, my only hope is that it's enjoyable for them also...