Manuel shows faith in Lidge
Manager gives closer chance to shut door on NL East title
PHILADELPHIA -- This should tell you something about Charlie Manuel, not the Phillies manager, but Charlie Manuel the compassionate human being.
His Phillies were an out from winning their third consecutive National League East title, a 10-3 cakewalk over Houston on Wednesday night, when Manuel summoned beleaguered closer Brad Lidge to the mound.
That's right, 2008 World Series hero Brad Lidge, who's had a dreadful 2009, blowing a Major League-leading 11 saves with an 0-8 record and a 7.38 earned run average.
He's been shell-shocked
But here the Phillies were, their Citizens Bank Park sellout crowd of 45,204 on the chilly night frantically yelling and waving red-and-white rally towels, and it was once again Brad Lidge Time.
What was Manuel thinking?
The dangerous Lance Berkman grounded out to Ryan Howard. Just one pitch -- just one pitch, and it was over. Fans were ecstatic as teammates mobbed Lidge to start a champagne-spraying celebration that exorcised an up-and-down season that was much more difficult than the record would indicate.
What a gesture by Manuel. He didn't have to bring Lidge in. The Astros were beaten and Scott Eyre easily recorded the first two outs in the ninth.
But you have to know Manuel.
Close your eyes and remember Lidge getting the final out in the Phillies' stirring World Series victory over Tampa Bay last October, then falling to his knees to trigger the celebration. Scores of Phillies fans hold that image dear, and although Wednesday night is only the first step to defending the championship, Lidge got the final out.
Manuel was virtually alone in his office, the victory party in full bloom outside his door. He wanted no part of the champagne.
"I wanted him to get out there," Manuel told me. "I thought it would be good for him and the crowd when they saw him come in. I've said all along, I didn't want to get rid of Lidge, shoot him or anything like that, even though he was having a tough time.
"It was an ideal situation to run him out there. My whole intention was to get his confidence back. I know he's got talent. Did you see him when he came in? I thought he threw his warm-up pitches as hard as he has all season."
Lidge was engulfed by the adrenaline flowing in the cozy ballpark.
"It wasan incredible moment," Lidge said. "I was praying I'd get the chance to come in. It felt wonderful. Charlie's been amazing for me all year. Everyone knows what a great guy he is, but he's had my back all year. Getting out there tonight was huge. It helped me feel that postseason mode again. Hopefully I can build on this and run with it."
Jimmy Rollins, who doubled, tripled and scored two runs in the nine-hit attack, said when Lidge came in, "I told him, 'This is your time. Go get it done.' He did that and it didn't take long, which is un-Brad-like."
After holding an 8 1/2-game lead a week ago the Phillies staggered to the title, flashing inconsistency and uninspired performances, not to mention blowing late-inning leads. But after Manuel held a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, his players responded with two solid victories, flashing the swagger that led them to only their second World Series title.
"It was harder this time," said Rollins, an integral part of the three consecutive division titles. "This year we were the [defending] champions. Everybody knows how good you are and you're not going to surprise anybody. People are gunning for you."
Rollins agrees it's difficult to repeat, "but we're one step in the right direction."
Manuel's theme from the moment Spring Training opened in February was not to forget what it took to get where you were in 2008.
At times he wondered.
"I saw some of our players change," he said late Wednesday night. "They were still enjoying the fact we won last year. That carried maybe all the way up to the end here. At the same time, they always came to play. This [division title] was as enjoyable as any of them.
"Our bullpen was hurt from day one. We had to make a lot of moves and we had to go with the people we had. Winning this time was a little bit harder, as far as how we went about it. People always said how good we were all year, but to get where we are tonight, we definitely had to overcome some obstacles."
Chase Utley, champagne dripping from his brow, said, "We knew this was going to be a battle [to win the division], and it was."
Looking back on the three consecutive division titles, he said, "None of them were easy. You have to play a lot of games, but we have a lot of good players and stayed fairly healthy this year. We knew it was going to be a battle and we still have some games to play."
Shane Victorino said, "Everybody was wondering if the Braves were going to catch the Phillies, but we stayed strong and played hard. The last two games were great because we played as a team and everybody contributed."
For Raul Ibanez, a key free-agent acquisition during the offseason, "this moment is incredible, because it's so difficult to repeat. This is what you prepare for, and it's awesome."
Jayson Werth believes the Phillies "have done the hard work -- the toughest job is to get there and give yourself a chance of repeating. Now, all bets are off. We go the postseason. We got a long road ahead of us, but I think we're up to the task."
Manuel says he's going to let his players take a deep breath and enjoy their long road to the division championship. But not for very long.
He's going to close the clubhouse door before the playoffs begin and remind them what it took in 2008.
He might even say something like, "The mountain didn't come to Muhammad, did it? He had to go to the mountain. He had to take it. That's what we have to do."
That was what he preached Tuesday afternoon, and it worked.
And you can count on him coming up with a strong sermon. After all, he is the son of a preacher.
Hal Bodley is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.