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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Phillies Must Avoid Deja Vu from 1993

We all heard it.


From the unhealthy looking skipper with too deep of a permanent tan, the guy who wore the cold-weather jacket on the hottest and most humid of summer days.

Jim Fregosi.

C'mon, now, Phillies' fans, say it with me. Consider it Part II of an exorcism.

"Mitch pitches the ninth."

It wasn't that long ago when a Phillies' skipper of a team vying for a championship stood steadfastly by a closer nicknamed "Wild Thing," the kid with the mullet who more often resembled a wrecking ball broadsiding a large building than a Swiss watchmaker. He pitched the ninth come hell or high water, and he gave up a walk-off home run to Joe Carter in Game 6 of the 1993 Series -- a Series-ending walk-off home run.

Phillies fans still haven't forgiven Fregosi for his stubbornness, because Williams struggled mightily. The problem was, most of the bullpen struggled, and there really wasn't a closer in waiting. The best of the bunch at season's end, Roger Mason, didn't have a closer's stuff. Or so it didn't appear. Still, Phillies' fans were left wondering why a guy who brought a gas can to a brush fire was given opportunity after opportunity to close a game.

So frustrated were Phillies' fans that many help up signs after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series exclaiming, "Mitch We Forgive You." The number of the signs -- and their exclamation -- surprised me. I had forgiven Williams a long time ago. He was an immature kid presumably doing the best he could on a mostly unlikable team. That he failed was a fact of baseball life. That Fregosi didn't have any clue as to alternatives was much more unforgivable.

So, fast forward to 2008. Charlie Manuel was doing his best Jim Fregosi imitation by repeatedly saying that Brad Lidge, his pitcher-version of a Mendoza Line-like 7 plus era notwithstanding, was his closer. Some of us were frustrated that the Phillies didn't add a back-up closer by either the July 31 trade deadline or the August 31 waiver-wire deadline. Then our frustration continued when Manuel persisted in making public announcements backing his closer (of course, what the heck was he supposed to say?). The problem, of course, is that having Lidge at the back of the bullpen all but guarantees losing in the NLDS. The reason: the four teams that make the playoffs are good enough to magnify an opponent's weakness. Translated, they'll murder Lidge if he closes. (As an aside, I wonder whether the Phillies' hitters have been struggling because they've been trying to hard to hit home runs and whether that straining is a direct consequence of having a poorly performing closer, which subsconciously is causing the hitters to try to mash the ball in order to build as big a lead as possible. The problem is that if you try too hard, you can magnify your failures).

Well, apparently today Charlie Manuel decided that at the moment he doesn't want to follow precisely in Jim Fregosi's footsteps. Click here for an article on which reports that the Phillies' skipper has backed off his endorsement of the Phillies' MVP in 2008. If that's so, that's good news, insofar as the Phillies need to consider alternatives to Lidge. Ryan Madson, the set-up man, didn't fare well in his stint as the closer when Lidge was on the disabled list earlier in the season. The closer for most of 2007, Brett Myers, is back from spending most of the season on the DL, so the speculation mounts whether the team will shelve Lidge as closer and ask Myers to carry the load. Myers certainly loves the spotlight, but he'd fit in more with the 1993 team than the 2008 team when it comes to maturity and deportment. Still, if he can finish ballgames, he turns the Phillies into a different team.

Fans will most certainly give the Phillies a break if they don't repeat as world champions. It's hard to win a World Series, let alone to win two in a row. That said, if they get to the post-season and combust because Lidge continues to fail, Phillies' fans won't be shy in venting their disappointment. After all, they're still not over hearing "Mitch pitches the ninth," and they won't suffer whatever conjured logic suggests that "Lidge pitches the ninth," 7 plus ERA and all.

The good news for Phillies' fans is that it seems that the front office and Charlie Manuel appear to have one or two alternatives to Brad Lidge, who should go on the shelf and then try to get it all back next year. Given Lidge's track record in 2008, it's hard to believe that he'll be able to turn it around and turn into "Lights Out Lidge" in time for the post-season.

Unfortunately and sadly, the only tune that Charlie Manuel should be contemplating now for Lidge is "Turn out the lights, the party's over. . ." at least insofar as Lidge is the closer for the rest of 2008. It's a sad situation, to be sure, but Manuel must turn the problem into an opportunity for someone else.

Or else risk repeating what happened at the end of the 1993 season.


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