Thursday, October 1, 2009

Manuel Leads Phillies Into October


On the final night of September, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel again demonstrated why he is probably the single best manager in professional baseball today as far as the handling of personalities goes.

With his defending World Series champions holding a commanding 10-3 lead over the Houston Astros, he had sent lefty reliever Scott Eyre to the mound to finish up the game. A win would clinch the 3rd straight National League East Division title for Manuel's team.

Sounds like relatively tame and uninspirational stuff, right? But another factor, a key to the dynamic of this specific Phillies team, was about to take over. Eyre did a nice job in securing the first two outs of the inning. With the team now just one out away from victory, one out from that 3rd straight division title, Manuel made his move.

Charlie Manuel walked up the steps of the home team dugout as the fans roared in anticipation of the clincher. He strode out to the mound while those fans whipped their white and red 'rally towels' furiously around in the air above their heads, creating a scene that has become a happy tradition at Citizens Bank Park in recent years.

And then Charlie Manuel looked out to his bullpen in centerfield and made a quick motion with his right hand. With that motion he summoned into the game and on to the mound embattled closer Brad Lidge. The crowd, seeing Lidge emerge from the bullpen door and begin making his way toward that mound, roared even louder. To understand, you need to know the background.

Brad Lidge was signed prior to the 2008 season by the Phillies to be their new closer, the man who comes in at the end of games in the most highly pressurized situations to put out the opponents final threat and secure a win for the Fightin' Phils.

Lidge had previously held that position with these same Houston Astros against whom he was being summoned last night. At first, Lidge was a fireballing setup man behind Astros closer Billy Wagner. When Wagner left via free agency and came here to Philadelphia, Lidge took over as the Houston closer. He had great success, but also suffered a miserable playoff failure as well. He lost confidence, fell out of favor, and also sustained injury.

His signing with the Phillies was a show of confidence by the club that the Phillies felt that with his physical health now secured that a change of scenery could be just what he needed to return to dominant form. Lidge did not disappoint. He was perfect as the team closer, never blowing a save opportunity all season.

At the apex of the 2008 baseball season, it was Brad Lidge slipping a slider past Tampa Bay Rays hitter Eric Hinske for the final out and the Phillies 2nd World Series title ever. Lidge sank to his knees and raised his arms to the sky, his eyes filled with the same awe and euphoria that the entire Philadelphia region was feeling. He was met quickly by his catcher, Carlos Ruiz, and then mobbed by his team in a celebratory pile that will not be soon forgotten in these parts.

A parade and an off-season of rewards and celebrations followed, but time marches on, and eventually a new season rolled around. For Brad Lidge, it would not prove to be as perfectly magical. Within the first couple of weeks, Lidge blew his first save as a Phillie. Within a month, Lidge's performances were becoming a concern. By the end of the summer, the Phillies were finally looking around at other closing options as Lidge's failures became more numerous and ever more frustrating.

For the vast majority of the season, Lidge received support from both the Philadelphia fans and from Manuel despite persistent failures. But those failures became so frequent, and the results began to affect the team in the standings to the point where Lidge was finally removed from the closer role by Manuel.

So when Charlie Manuel made that gesture and called Brad Lidge into the game to finish it off, it was a move made from a pair of thoughts. First, Manuel wanted Lidge and his team to know that he still believed in the closer, that he still felt that Lidge was important. The symbolism of the move was that every single player on this team can and has gone through a rough time. Manuel will not give up on them when they have shown success in the past and are working hard to continue it.

The other reason that Manuel called Lidge out was competitive. He wanted Lidge to again get that feel of standing on the mound in a key moment with something on the line. He wanted Lidge to feel the adrenaline of that moment, of those roaring fans and waving towels. He wanted Lidge to succeed and secure the final out that would win the division title.

Brad Lidge did not let Charlie Manuel or those fans down last night. In fact, he made short work of the Astros' Lance Berkman. A nice first-pitch slider was grounded to first baseman Ryan Howard, who trotted to the bag and recorded the final out of the game. Howard then turned towards Lidge, who was noticeably pumped up, and the two exchanged a high-five and an embrace as they were mobbed by their celebrating teammates and showered with applause and cheers from their fans.

Charlie Manuel had succeeded in the moment. There is every possibility that Lidge will take this adrenaline, this confidence, and run off a string of successes that will make the difference as the Phillies again enter October, this time to defend a championship. If that happens, no one will be able to argue that what happened last night was the turning point.

Even if the post-season ends in some other way for these Phillies, and with a number of other strong teams there is a chance that will happen, the significance of what Manuel did last night will reverberate into 2010 for the Phillies as they regroup. This team is built for the long haul. They will contend again next season, and likely for a couple more at least. It will be the leadership of their manager, something that Charlie Manuel would downplay himself, that will continue to play a huge part in that success.

No comments: