Last year, the Phillies were an offensive powerhouse that just barely made the playoffs, thanks to an incredible end-of-season push and an epic display of incompetence on the part of the New York Mets.
But then the Mets signed Johan Santana, leading to yet another preseason filled with predictions of the Mets winning not just the National League East division, but also the World Series. And while the national sports media had their eyes fixed on the big apple once again, hardly anyone noticed when the Phillies signed some guy named Brad Lidge.
There were just a few comments about how Albert Pujols had broken Lidge in the playoffs and that Philly was his second—if not last—chance.
If the media had entertained the notion that Lidge, who had once been nothing short of dominant in Houston, could have a resurgence in Philly, there would be arguments about which team made the better pickup: Mets or Phillies? Starter or Closer?
But such arguments were instead reserved for one man on one team: Joba Chamberlain of the New York Yankees.
The Yankees decided to make Joba Chamberlain a starter. They might be second-guessing themselves by now. Santana pitched well this season but didn't play in October thanks to a floundering Billy Wagner-less bullpen.
Meanwhile, Lidge has helped push the Phillies—whose starting rotation and offense were inconsistent for much of the year—deep into the postseason.
Admittedly, Lidge hasn't done it alone. In baseball, one man is never enough—*Cough, Manny, Cough*—to win a championship. The Phillies' entire bullpen has been remarkable this year, and one key factor has been having Lidge as the anchor.
Ryan Madson has been another key, as he has really come into his own this year after several years with the Phils. He has taken well to the role of right-handed set-up man for Lidge, while J.A. Happ and Chad Durbin have come up to the big leagues this year to fill Madson's former role of middle reliever beautifully.
J.C. Romero is the other piece in the strong left-right combo setting up Lidge. Romero has built on his success from last year while continuing to provide the bullpen with a fiery, sometimes in-your-face attitude that complements the silent intensity etched on the faces of Madson and Lidge.
As a group, these pitchers have done the only thing a bullpen is asked to do: shorten games. The Phillies are undefeated when leading after the eighth. Undefeated. Lidge hasn't blown a save all year.
They carry these streaks into the World Series where they will face the Tampa Bay Rays. And it will be no surprise if they carry them into next season.
The Rays are more like the L.A. Dodgers than some realize. Both are young teams with savvy managers and lots of talent.
But there are two important differences.
The first? Well, that would be Manny, who—love him or hate him—can flat-out hit.
The Dodgers' lineup, one through eight, matches up well with the Rays. But Manny changes a pitcher's approach to the game and adds that little bit of extra pressure. The Phils' bullpen got the job done against L.A. It can get the job done against the Rays.
The second? Levels of expectation.
The Dodgers are a storied franchise and they had a one-year window (Manny's contract) for a "quickie" World Series title. Everyone wanted to take advantage of this opportunity before Manny rode off into the sunset to play in new Yankee Stadium. The players might have felt, and buckled slightly, under that pressure.
The Rays, on the other hand, had never won more than 70 games in a season before now and couldn't fill their stadium for Game Seven of the ALCS because of a Monday Night Football game. They might move the franchise soon because their fanbase in Florida is so uncommitted.
They're also young. Perhaps too young to know how big a series this is. It's easy to say they know, but do they feel it? The Rays might just be relaxed enough to be patient and let Lidge walk them with a slider rather than chasing it to end those bases-loaded, one-out jams he seems so fond of getting himself into every now and then.
But as a lifelong Phillies fan, I'm not worried about going to our bullpen. I'm just hoping to have the lead when we do.
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