Let me start by saying that I like cherries. I value them. They are one of my favorite fruit. But while an ice cream sundae may not taste its best without one, it is still an ice cream sundae.
I say all this because I am about to talk about closers, which to me are baseball's equivalent of a cherry. This topic of discussion arises from last night's melt-down in Pittsburgh, where Brad Lidge blew his ninth save of the season and gave fresh fodder to the we're-doomed-if-this-continues crowd.
Again, let me re-iterate. I value cherries, and I value closers. There is no question Lidge was one of the key factors for the Phillies' World Series title last season. Without him on the mound pitching at his best, do they win Game 5? Maybe. Maybe not.
Would a dominant Lidge greatly enhance the Phillies' chances of repeating this year? Absolutely.
But is a dominant Lidge absolutely necesarry? History suggests no.
In today's game, the closer has taken on an almost mythical status. And rightly so. One need only look at the Red Sox's Jonathon Papelbon, the Yankees' Mariano Riveira, and the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez to see the value in having one player who can shorten every game by one inning.
But I also think our perspective is clouded by the fact that those three players have competed for five of the last 10 World Series champions.
EDIT: As a couple of you have pointed out, Papelbon was not on the '04 team, as originally stated. Instead, the equally-dominant Keith Foulke was. High Cheese regrets the error, although the over-riding point remains the same.
In an ideal world, at least in the one inhabited by the Phillies, Lidge would be included in those ranks. But right now, it is painfully evident that he isn't. Last night, both Charlie Manuel and Lidge seemed at a loss for words following the Phillies' 6-4 loss to the Pirates. For the first time in any of Lidge's nine blown saves, both men seemed to be searching. Their voices were far away when the talked. Their minds were somewhere else. Say this about both men - when they talked on prior occasions, you really felt like they believed that Lidge would turn it around. Last night, however, that conviction was missing in their voices. Lidge talked softly about the difficulty of pitching four days straight, even though he recorded saves in four straight games earlier this season while throwing more pitches over that stretch than he did in this most recent one. He has pitched in four straight games on two other occasions over the last two years, and never with the results of last night.
So yes, the Phillies have a problem.
But it is not an irreversible one, particularly with the influx of arms they could soon receive in the bullpen.
First, let's take a look back at recent history. While five of the 10 World Series Champions from 1998-2007 featured either Papelbon, Rivera, or Rodriguez at closer, five of them did not. And in four of those situations, the closer situation was just as tenuous as it is right now for the Phillies:
1) 2003 Marlins: During the regular season, closer Braden Looper blew six saves. In late September, the Marlins replaced him with righthander Ugueth Urbina, whom the team acquired from Texas in early July. Urbina went on to save four games during the playoffs, posting a 3.46 ERA, including two in the World Series. Looper pitched in three games in the World Series, allowing four runs on six hits with two home runs in 3 2/3 innings.
2) 2006 Cardinals: During the regular season, closer Jason Isringhausen blew 10 saves, then went on the disabled list in September with a hip injury. He was replaced by Adam Wainwright, who had a 3.12 ERA during the regular season, then went on to save four games in the playoffs, pitching a total of 9 2/3 scoreless innings during St. Louis' title run.
3) 2005 White Sox: Chicago had a lights-out closer in Dustin Hermanson, who saved 34 games and posted a 2.04 ERA during the regular season. But in September, Hermanson went on the disabled list with a back injury and was replaced by mid-season call-up Bobby Jenks, who saved four games during the playoffs, including two in the World Series.
4) 2001 Diamondbacks: Byung Hyun Kim saved 19 games and posted a 2.94 ERA during the regular season, then saved three games in 6 1/3 scoreless innings in the NLDS and NLCS. But in the World Series, he blew both of his save opportunities, allowing five runs between them. The Diamondbacks went on to win in seven games.
So how does all of this relate to the 2009 Phillies?
First and foremost, it gives an indication that a closer is an important part of a dynasty. Again -- remember the cherries -- I am not down-playing that. None of the aforementioned four title winners won more than once in the given 10-year span. The Red Sox, with Jonathon Papelbon, won twice. The Yankees, with Rivera, won three times.
But it also gives an indication that if a baseball team is a Lizard, then a closer is the Lizard's tail. If you chop off the tail, a new one will grow. It might take awhile, and it might be painful, and if the Lizard had its druthers then he certainly would have elected to keep the original, but he'd much rather lose his tail than his head.
While the Phillies bullpen has been marred by injuries and inconsistency this season, it also has the possibility of possessing unprecedented depth during September and October.
If the three key performers currently on the disabled list -- lefthander J.C. Romero and righthanders Clay Condrey and Brett Myers -- return during September (a big if, I admit), the team will have plenty of options to sort through in the final weeks of the regular season.
*Brett Myers: He has closed before, reports say his velocity is up over where it was before his injury, and he has the ability to pitch either multiple innings or in the back of the bull-pen.
*Chan Ho Park: Like Myers, he has back-of-the-bullpen stuff as well as an ability to pitch multiple innings.
*Ryan Madson: He struggled in his brief stint as closer when Lidge was on the disabled list, but there is no questioning his stuff.
*Scott Eyre: Manuel used him to retire two left-handed batters in the ninth inning earlier this month in Atlanta before sending Lidge in for the one-out save.
*J.C. Romero: When he signed a three-year extension prior to last season, it was with the assumption that he would give the Phillies a left-handed option for the back of the bullpen.
Right there you have five players not named Lidge who have the type of repetoire it takes to succeed in the ninth inning. Last year, the Rays made it to the World Series using a closer-by-committee approach, using parts far less capable than the ones the Phillies currently possess.
Am I suggesting the Phillies go with a committee approach? No. I'm just suggesting that they have options. And while none of them makes them as strong of a team as they are when Lidge is shutting down the ninth inning, I do think that Lidge's struggles are surmountable.
I also think that Manuel does not need to be in a rush to evaluate his other options. That time is coming, but it is not here yet. Urbina did not replace Looper until the final week of September. The Phillies still need to find away to straighten Lidge out, and with every passing game, there is less and less evidence that they will succeed. But with a seven-game division lead, is there much harm in running him out there until Myers and Romero return, hoping that something might finally click? And, if something does not click, in using the final two or three weeks of the season to implement the back-up plan?
Again, back to the cherries. I am not down-playing their importance. Believe me, there is nothing more frustrating then heaping hot fudge, caramel and whipped cream onto vanilla ice cream and then realizing that you do not have the cherry. There is no guarantee that you can run out to the store, buy a jar, and return before your dessert turns into a puddle.
But it has been done before.