PHILADELPHIA -- Brad Lidge jogged steadily on the outfield grass, only slowing down once he reached the infield of Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies' closer kicked loose some dirt from the mound, then picked up the ball to start his warmup tosses. The right-hander's routine was no different from any of his previous 40 saves in 2008. Once Saturday's ninth inning vs. the Nationals got started, however, it soon became apparent that Lidge would have to work harder for save No. 41 than any of the 45,177 raucous, towel-waving fans would have expected. Before he finally delivered the pitch that crowned the Phillies champions of the National League East in a 4-3 victory, Lidge would watch a two-run lead dwindle to one, then escape a bases-loaded jam with one out.
For Lidge, it was a fitting way to clinch the division. "This season's been a grind," the 31-year-old said as he stood in the Phillies' clubhouse, soaked with champagne and wearing a gray T-shirt that proclaimed Philadelphia champion of the NL East. "Nothing's been easy for us." Patches of blue sky beamed into Citizens Bank Park through low-hanging white clouds when Lidge began working to the Nationals' first hitter, Emilio Bonifacio. The roar that had engulfed the park when Lidge first entered only grew louder when Bonifacio whiffed on an 86-mph slider for the first out of the inning. In the season's early months, Lidge's saves were almost automatic. He had a 0.82 ERA in his first 12 save opportunities and retired 21 of 24 batters in one stretch. Saturday's ninth inning looked like it could be more of the same, but things got tricky for Lidge after striking out Bonifacio. Lidge allowed a single to Roger Bernadina and a walk to Ryan Langerhans. That's when pitching coach Rich Dubee convened a meeting of the entire infield on the mound to try to help Lidge settle down. "You've been here before," Dubee recalled telling Lidge. Indeed, he had. As the 2008 season wore on, Lidge's saves became less automatic and some even teetered on nail-biting. There had been close calls along the way, but somehow, Lidge had lasted longer into the season than any Philly closer in history without blowing a save. And Saturday was not the day he wanted that streak to end. After the mound meeting broke up, a Nationals comeback came closer to reality when Anderson Hernandez singled to right field, scoring Bernadina to make it 4-3. When the next hitter, Cristian Guzman, stepped into the batter's box, the blue sky that had shone so brightly when the inning began had vanished. It its place, black storm clouds had drifted over, almost blocking out the view of Philadelphia's skyline. Under the ominous clouds, Lidge allowed a single to Guzman that loaded the bases with one out for Ryan Zimmerman. "My thought there is I was trying to get a double play," Lidge said. Lidge dealt Zimmerman a 1-1 slider that the Nationals' third baseman hit sharply on the ground. It looked like it was headed up the middle, which would have tied the game and ruined Lidge's perfect season. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, however, dove to cut it off, flipped the ball to Chase Utley, who fired to Ryan Howard to complete the double play. "As soon as he hit it, I was hoping [Rollins] was playing where I thought," Lidge said. "It's a ground ball on that side of the infield -- I'm hoping it's at Jimmy. Jimmy made a great play." "Those guys are incredibly good defensive players," Lidge said of Rollins and Utley. "I don't want anybody else behind me making that play but those two guys." As the celebration began, Lidge's place as the most reliable closer in Phillies history became all but official. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no Phillies closer with 20 or more saves in a season has lasted an entire year without a blown save since saves became an official statistic in 1969. "That's kind of tough to beat," assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "It is what it is. It's pretty amazing that he went out there for 41 chances and did it 41 times. Hopefully he can do it another 10 or so."
Kevin Horan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.