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Five Cuts: In bad week for closers, Phillies' Lidge regains confidence

1. When the Phillies attempt to close out Colorado tonight and put in place a rematch of the 2008 NLCS against Los Angeles, they might feel a little better about the last three outs than they did when the regular season ended. Well, a little better, anyway.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, in his first real test of how he would handle his endgame, gave a one-run lead to Brad Lidge in part because he had no options, not after he had to dip into his bullpen early and often and because an ankle injury to Scott Eyre forced Ryan Madson into the game early. In a turbulent week for closers, in which Ryan Franklin of St. Louis, Joe Nathan of Minnesota and Jonathan Papelbon of Boston all were undone by a lack of command, Lidge, the shakiest proposition when the week began, somehow survived and at least gave Philadelphia some hope that it's beginning to look like 2008 again.

Lidge did preserve the 6-5 victory, though there were signs that he still is rough around the edges. Lidge threw more balls (11) than strikes (9). He faced five batters and fell behind with a first-pitch ball on every one of them. He walked two batters, didn't get a single swinging strike and still had problems commanding his fastball. (He threw only five of his 12 fastballs for strikes.)

Of course, keep in mind that the frigid conditions made for slick baseballs. The Rockies and Phillies combined for 12 walks and 337 pitches.

The save, no matter how it was obtained, was important for the confidence of Lidge and his manager. That said, with workhorse Cliff Lee getting the start for Philadelphia in Game 4 tonight, I wouldn't be surprised if Manuel pushed Lee beyond 120 pitches to do what he did in Game 1: keep the bullpen door closed while taking care of nine innings himself.

2. Have you noticed this postseason how hitters such as Orlando Cabrera, Nick Swisher and Troy Glaus smell their bats after fouling a pitch straight back? They're smelling for smoke. Hitters believe that if they catch the seams of the baseball just right with the wood that they create enough friction to generate a small puff of smoke, leaving a slight burning smell behind on the bat.

"It's a good thing," Glaus said. "It means you've generated enough bat speed on a ball coming in fast enough to generate enough friction. You can't do it in batting practice. The bats with the natural grain, no finish on them, are the best ones [for smoke] because it's just wood on the seams."

When baseball honored Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game, as the players gathered around Williams near the mound, the Splendid Splinter had a question for Mark McGwire: did he ever smell smoke on his bat after a foul ball? The concept has been around a while, but I can't remember so many occasions of guys smelling their bats like we've seen this postseason.

3. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez put a beautiful two-strike swing on a pitch Carl Pavano left up in the strike zone in ALDS Game 3 -- on balance, quick swing path, hands inside the ball, almost effortless -- and still mashed it so far to the opposite field that it would be the envy of most left-handers for their pulled home runs. It was just one more sign that Rodriguez is a game-changing hitter right now, and this after he deserves much credit for making good on his promise to rededicate himself to baseball (and less to off-the-field headlines). He is in a good place right now mentally and physically, bouncing back admirably from his steroid quagmire.

Should the Angels take him out of the ALCS the way the Dodgers took Albert Pujols out of the NLDS -- to give him the Bonds treatment? Can't happen. You saw what happened when Minnesota reliever Jon Rauch tiptoed around Rodriguez and walked him in the ninth of Game 3: it helped set up two runs to put the game away. The Yankees have too many other ways to beat a team if it pitches around Rodriguez.

In fact, what the Dodgers did to Pujols wouldn't even work against Ryan Howard if Los Angeles wound up seeing Philadelphia in the NLCS. "You couldn't do that with Howard," Dodgers third base Larry Bowa said, "because they have too many other weapons that can hurt you."

4. What is going on with the Division Series? With three more sweeps this year, that makes nine sweeps out of 16 series over the past four years. There has been only one Game 5 in the past 19 series. I'll leave it to others to invent some reason this is happening -- the tough week for closers contributed to three sweeps this year, but that doesn't make for a four-year trend.

The problem with these sweeps, though, is that it packs even more off days into a postseason schedule that already has too many. The Yankees and Angels, for instance, will have played three games in 11 days heading into the ALCS.

5. It's time to think about getting rid of the left-field line and right-field line umpires in postseason play. The blown call by Phil Cuzzi in New York in ALDS Game 2 should motivate baseball to rethink whether such assignments are necessary. The problem is that in the most important games of the year you're suddenly creating positions that never existed over the course of the six-month season. That puts umpires in the awkward position of having to make calls from unfamiliar sight lines and with almost no such experience. And sometimes the awkward position is quite literal.

"I just finished telling somebody else that," Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer said when I presented my idea about getting rid of the umpires on the outfield lines. "There is such a thing as being too close to make a call. I refereed basketball, and you always wanted some depth to be able to make the call. Sometimes in the outfield you wind up too close and in a position you're not familiar with."

Worse, sometimes the guys can get in the way.

"There was one game in the [1996] World Series we lost when the right-field umpire never moved out of the way of Jermaine Dye," said former Braves pitcher John Smoltz, now of the Cardinals. "It cost us an out." The umpire, Tim Welke, failed to get out of the way of Dye, the right fielder. It's a tough spot: keep your eye on the ball, preparing to make a call on fair or foul, but keep another eye on the fielder.

Commissioner Happy Chandler started the six-man umpire crews for the World Series in 1947. Actually, from 1918 through 1946 baseball kept two alternate umpires on site. Chandler simply decided he might as well put them to use and assigned them to the outfield lines, which is where they stayed. It wasn't until 1964 that all six umpires rotated positions each postseason game.

The idea of getting rid of the outfield umpires now makes even more sense when you consider we now have instant replay to take care of any close calls along the border of the outfield. Four umpires are plenty for six months of baseball. I would think four would be sufficient for the seventh month, too.

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