Ah, 2009. Lidge went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and 31 saves last season. He blew a Major League-leading 11 saves. It was a nightmarish year that looked even worse following a flawless 2008, when he went 2-0 with a 1.95 ERA and 48 saves in 48 opportunities, including the postseason. Lidge's ERA spiked 5.26 runs from '08 to '09, which was the fourth-worst jump in ERA in baseball history for relief pitchers with at least 40 appearances in consecutive seasons.
Lidge had been bothered with a sprained right knee, which put him on the disabled list in June, but for much of the season, he maintained he felt fine. He wasn't. The knee altered his mechanics, which might have caused the pain in his right elbow the second half of the season.
"It was tough to throw," he said. "The biggest thing for me was trying to convince myself the whole year that I could get it done the same way. And I felt I could, but obviously I wasn't the same guy last year as '08."
Both injuries affected the quality of Lidge's fastball and slider. His altered mechanics, which he needed to compensate for his ailing knee, made him slower to the plate and might have had him tipping his pitches. Runners ran at will against him (remember Johnny Damon in Game 4 of the World Series). He started to throw a cutter the final weekend of the regular season as a stopgap to resolve his struggles against left-handed hitters.
Lidge said despite his struggles, he never thought about shutting himself down.
"I'll never put myself on the DL," he said. "If they pull me out of there and say, 'You can't do it,' that's one thing. If I can physically go out there, I'm going to. That's not a decision that I feel like I need to make."
But Lidge decided to have surgery after the season. He had his flexor pronator tendon in his right elbow repaired and a loose body removed in November. He had knee surgery in January, which he said leaves him about two weeks behind schedule entering Spring Training.
"I definitely feel a lot better," he said. "I knew I needed to get my arm taken care of. That was more of a clean out-type procedure. Getting some bone chips and bone spurs. I had a little tendon tear. Really the big issue for me was going to be my knee. We tried to let it rest and just see if it would go away without having to do a surgery on it. I was going up the stairs somewhere in December, and it was still hurting. So at that point, I was like, 'We've got to get something done. I don't want to go through '09 again.' Right now, it actually feels really good. Probably just a couple weeks after the surgery, I was able to do a lot of things that I hadn't been able to do the previous 10, 11 months. So I think that's a really good sign going into Spring Training this year."
Lidge is a motivated man this spring. He literally went from being the best relief pitcher in baseball in '08 to the worst in '09.
He wants to get back to the norm.
The veteran righty wants to get as far away from that 7.21 ERA as possible.
"It's a really frustrating thing," Lidge said. "When you look at your career, a year like that really sucks. It stands out. There are years that go better than you ever thought. There are years that go worse than you ever thought. But it is definitely motivating for me to get back to being the pitcher I am, and I know I will be this year. I probably won't look back and dwell on it and be like, 'That's too bad,' or whatever. It did happen. It was a tough year. But it's done. Now it's just all about being myself again and going to my bread and butter and getting things done. I don't necessarily expect myself to have '08, but I expect myself to be a hell of a lot closer to '08 than '09, that's for sure. I feel really optimistic that will be the case."
If Lidge had been healthy, he already would have thrown off a mound. But because he isn't, he estimates he might not throw off a mound for another two weeks. That would leave him less time to get the 10 to 13 appearances in Spring Training he probably needs to be ready for the season.
He thinks he can do it.
"If there are no setbacks and everything goes smooth, I think that's a possibility," Lidge said. "I think that's reasonable. But we also look at '08 as a model. I missed the first five games, we didn't try to rush it and I had the best year of my career. We'll be smart about it."
Smarter is better. The Phillies need Lidge to anchor a bullpen that looked shaky at times last season. If he is closing and closing successfully, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Danys Baez, Chad Durbin and Jose Contreras fall in behind him. And that means, in theory, everything should be improved.