Game postponed; Lidge stiffness leaves Phillies' bullpen on uncertain ground

Tonight's Phillies-Rockies game has been postponed due to heavy rain here in Denver. The game will be made up tomorrow as part of a day/night doubleheader, the first game starting at 3:10 EST and the second at 8:40 EST. We'll let you know pitching match-ups ASAP, but it stands to reason that everything will stay in order, Roy Halladay and Jamie Moyer facing Aaron Cook and Jason Hammel. . .In the mean-time, here is a look at the Phillies' bullpen situation in light of Brad Lidge's elbow stiffness:

Another day, another injury for the Phillies bullpen. This time, closer Brad Lidge's availability is in jeopardy as he attempts to work through stiffness in his surgically-repaired right elbow. Both the Phillies and Lidge said the stiffness isn't out of the ordinary for a pitcher coming off surgery, and that his status remains day-to-day.

But Jose Contreras having pitched in three straight games and Lidge unhappy with the way his elbow felt in a pre-game throwing session, manager Charlie Manuel said prior to last night's game he wasn't sure who, exactly, he would call upon in a late-and-close situation.

"We just kind of play it and see where we're at," Manuel said. "We'll get by."

The Phillies say it is too early to make any drastic decisions like sending Lidge or a bench player to the disabled list to call up a fresh arm from the minor leagues. And with workhorse starter Roy Halladay on the mound last night, an off day tomorrow, and rain and snow in the forecast for today, they could enter a weekend series in Milwaukee with their healthy relievers well-rested. But there has been very little good news lately with regards to the health of a bullpen that has played a big role in the Phillies recent surge, which saw them enter last night's game with a 20-12 record and wins in eight of their last 10.

In 21.1 innings in May before last night, the club's relievers had posted a 1.92 ERA, lowest among any major league team. But their three most reliable contributors -- Contreras and fellow righthanders Danys Baez and Chad Durbin -- combined to pitch 15.1 of those innings. Baez and Contreras were tied for third in the National League with five May appearances each, with Durbin not far behind at 4.

In a perfect world, Lidge's stiffness is just a minor short-term set-back in his recovery from offseason elbow surgery to repair his flexor tendon and remove bone chips, and lefthander J.C. Romero returns to the role he filled in 2008, not only a lefty-specialist but a set-up man capable of pitching the seventh, eighth, or ninth innings.
As it stands now, though, the bullpen beyond Contreras, Durbin and Baez consists of two relievers working their way back from surgery, a Rule 5 pick in David Herndon whose 11 appearances have come in carefully-chosen spots, and Nelson Figueroa, a career spot starter/long reliever whom the Phillies picked up off of waivers to pitch in the middle innings.

Manuel's challenge, then, is to find the right combination of relievers to win games in the short term without over-using his reliable options and jeopardizing their effectiveness for later in the season.

Contreras, signed for $1.5 million at the end of the offseason, has been the unit's saving grace thus far. In 13 appearances totalling 11.2 innings, he has allowed one run, one walk and six hits while striking out 15.

"He's carrying a lot of us right now," Lidge said.
But 2010 is his first season as a full-time reliever. His scoreless defense of a four-run lead in the ninth inning against the Rockies Monday marked his first time ever pitching on three straight days.

"Eventually, he's going to be able to throw four, five days in a row if we keept it at a one inning deal," Manuel said.
But Manuel is also wary of heaping too big of a workload too soon on the reliever he has nicknamed "Big Truck" (not because he is built like a big truck, which he is, but because he drives a big truck).

Durbin has been outstanding this season, posting a 1.72 ERA and rates of 8.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 4.6 H/9 in 15.2 innings. He has stranded all four of his inherited runners, recorded holds in all five of his save situations, and struck out five of the last seven batters he has faced. But the Phillies also remeber his 2008 season, when he led all NL relievers in innings pitched and finished July with a 1.67 ERA, but posted a 5.40 ERA and a .400 opposing OBP in the final two months. Part of the drop-off had to do with Durbin's unfamiliarity with a relief role -- he was a converted starter and would often go overboard when called upon to warm up in the 'Pen. But Contreras is in a similar situation this season, and Durbin battled injuries last year, so the Phillies clearly have reason to be wary when doling out workload.

Which is why Lidge's condition is so critical. Before his throwing session yesterday, he said he was not concerned with the stiffness, which he first felt during a perfect ninth inning Sunday against the Marlins that earned him his first save of the season.

"It's really not alarming at all," Lidge said, "unless for some reason it doesn't get better at all over a couple of days."

Before the throwing session, Lidge said he hoped to pitch if his arm responded. Afterward, a frustrated-looking Lidge said his arm didn't respond.

But the Phillies don't have many other options. The front office has spent much of the last month evaluating external options. In April, they had a couple of scouts at a game in Toronto, where lefty releiver Scott Downs could be available. Righthander Juan Cruz, a free-agent disappointment in Kansas City, which released him last month, is 31 years old and has struck out 9.1 batters-per-nine with a 4.15 ERA in 10 seasons.

At the minor league level, righthander Scott Mathieson has been throwing in the mid-90's and has allowed just one run with 16 strikeouts in 14.2 innings. But the Phillies feel like he needs to turn his slider, the development of which was hindered by two injury-plagued seasons, into a reliable out-pitch to succeed at the big league level. Lefthander Sergio Escalona has a 2.92 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 12.1 innings at Double-A Reading, but he has also allowed three home runs. Fellow lefty Antonio Bastardo has made four scoreless appearances since being optioned back to Lehigh Valley. And former starter Brandon Duckworth has been moved to the bullpen in case he is needed at the big league level.
But before the Phillies make any drastic moves, they feel like they need to give Romero and Lidge time to re-establish themselves.

"I don't think it's to that point," assistant GM Scott Proefrock said of sending Lidge to the DL and calling up a fresh arm. "If it gets to that point, we can explore that. Right now, it's just something we're monitoring day to day."