CLEARWATER, Fla. - Brad Lidge is close to doing something for the first time as a Phillie: starting the Grapefruit League season on time.
The last few offseasons have featured a variety of health maladies for the closer. A month before the Phillies acquired him from the Astros in November 2007, Lidge had surgery to repair torn knee cartilage. Then, in late February, he had surgery to repair his meniscus and didn't make his spring debut until late March.
In 2009, a lingering case of forearm tightness postponed Lidge's first Grapefruit League outing to March 17.
Last year he missed all of Grapefruit League play while working his way back from surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his pitching elbow.
This year, though, Lidge is on schedule.
"Probably the first time with the Phillies," Lidge said, "assuming nothing happens."
The only thing that has happened thus far is an illness that slowed him down for a few days last week. Otherwise, Lidge is ready to build on the stellar second half he posted in 2010 when he converted 17 of 18 save opportunities and allowed just two earned runs with 25 strikeouts and 10 walks in 24 2/3 innings. The 34-year-old righthander is entering the final year of the 3-year, $37.5 million contract extension he signed midway through his brilliant 2008 campaign. The Phillies hold a $12.5 million option for next season, but are likely to decline it. (The top available closer to change teams this winter, Rafael Soriano, signed a 3-year, $35 million deal.)
Lidge and the Phillies are always optimistic this time of year. But this year, his health is at an equal level.
"I think he's a lot further along," said pitching coach Rich Dubee, who compared Lidge's past few offseasons to the one Raul Ibanez endured after sports-hernia surgery following 2009. "Just take Raul this year. Raul's a lot stronger this year. Being able to go through their usual offseason programs, when they lose that time recovering from surgeries, first, they are healing inside, second, their programs get disrupted. Brad, for a couple years now, has been a little bit behind. But this year he was able to throw, able to lift, able to do all of his conditioning and he's much further along than he's been in the past."
By this point, Lidge's story is well-known. In 2008, he converted all 41 of his save opportunities in the regular season, with a 1.95 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings, and all seven of his save opportunities in the postseason as the Phillies won their first World Series in 28 years.
But he struggled in 2009, going 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA while blowing 11 of his his 42 save opportunities. After offseason elbow and knee surgeries, Lidge spent the first month of the 2010 season on the disabled list, then blew four of his first 14 save opportunities with a 5.57 ERA. His strong finish resulted in some impressive final numbers: 2.96 ERA, 52 strikeouts and 24 walks in 45 2/3 innings with 27 saves in 32 attempts.
In the offseason, Lidge found himself with a rare opportunity to follow a normal routine. He showed up for spring training with a noticeably slimmer body and a stronger arm thanks to a winter of conditioning and long-tossing.
Dubee thinks there is a chance Lidge's offseason can help him reclaim some of the velocity he has lost on his fastball (in 2008, he averaged about 94 mph; last season, around 92 mph). But Lidge showed that he could pitch effectively even without overpowering hitters.
Now the Phillies are hoping a successful offseason will lead to Lidge's first full season since 2008.
"Normally at this stage, just trying to get everything going is pretty painful," Lidge said. "I'm normally coming off surgeries so I'm kind of backed up. Unfortunately, I normally have spring training when the season starts as opposed to being able to have it when it's supposed to happen. The big difference is I'll be able to do all my things at the times I'm supposed to be doing them, getting ready for the season. I'll be ready for Day One."
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