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Lidge basks in October's pressure

LOS ANGELES -- As Brad Lidge finished his warmup pitches before the bottom of the ninth inning on Thursday night, an interesting tune began pulsing through the Dodger Stadium loudspeakers: Metallica's Enter Sandman. It was a curious choice, and not just because it is best known in baseball circles as the personal anthem of the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, and its foreboding sound has been a staple of Octobers past, usually serving as last rites for the opposition.

What is usually used to pump up a home team's pitcher was tonight being used as a rallying cry for the home team's offense. In the end, it only served once again as the prelude to another impressive performance by a closer with serious playoff credentials. It is not Lidge's music -- he prefers Soldiers by Drowning Pool -- but it was nevertheless an appropriate background song as he began a one-inning performance that ended with a win for the Phillies, a save for Lidge, and yet another booster shot of confidence for a formerly sagging Phillies bullpen.

Nobody will confuse Lidge for Rivera, but the much-maligned Phillies closer has actually been doing a pretty decent Rivera impersonation over the past two Octobers. In his last 11 postseason outings stretching to Game 2 of the 2008 NLDS, he has not allowed a run while notching nine saves in nine chances and a 3:1 K/BB ratio. On Thursday, he converted his third consecutive save this postseason, securing the final three outs of Philadelphia's 8-6 win.

Lidge wasn't the only one to offer compelling evidence that the Phillies may actually have a pen to match L.A.'s in this series. J.A. Happ, whose role is still so unsettled that Lidge says he doesn't know if he'll be in the bullpen each day "until I walk down there in the fifth inning and he's sitting there," escaped a bases-loaded jam in the sixth by retiring Rafael Furcal on a ground ball. Chan Ho Park, who hadn't pitched in a game of any kind since Sept. 16, retired all three hitters he faced after relieving Antonio Bastardo with one on in the seventh. And Ryan Madson, despite allowing two runs, simply overpowered Manny Ramirez with one mid-90s fastball after another in a critical at-bat in the eighth inning.

Given that the Phillies have a much more dangerous offense than the Dodgers -- they were outhit 14-8, but a pair of three-run home runs and a two-run double from Ryan Howard was yet another sign of their big-strike capability -- the fact that they may be able to counter the Dodgers' biggest strength makes them that much more difficult to beat. No reliever in that suddenly stellar bullpen -- no player in fact -- will be more closely watched than Lidge, which means that no reliever was as impressive as he was in Game 1. Twice he allowed the tying run to come to the plate, and twice he responded by getting that hitter, dousing a rally before it could ever start. "There's something about me right now," he said afterward. "They could have the bases loaded or first and third and nobody out and I still know, somehow, we're going to get the save."

Given the erratic way his season is gone, he would seem due for a blown save. In fact, five other times this year, he has converted three consecutive save chances and then blown his next opportunity. But, as Lidge himself said afterward, this is a different time. "This is October. The regular season doesn't mean a whole lot when October rolls around."

It is also a different Lidge. Howard, perhaps weary from being asked repeatedly if Lidge had changed now that the calendar has flipped to October, said, "Yeah, he changed shaving cream."

With a scruffy playoff beard, it doesn't seem Lidge has been doing any shaving at all of late, other than trimming runs off his postseason ERA and shedding much of the doubt that has haunted him this year. Yet while others wondered aloud if he was up to succeeding in the cauldron of the postseason, Lidge, remarkably, managed to never doubt his own value. Part of that is due to his experience, and some is because he is, by his own admission, a different pitcher now than he was a few weeks ago. Nobody wanted October to get here as fast as he did, especially after he blew 11 saves and posted a 7.21 ERA during the regular season. At one point, he seemed sure to lose his role as closer. But as the season wound down, he suddenly found himself able to push off his back leg with more force, allowing for a harder slider and more powerful fastball. "I'm a little quicker now," he said. "I have a higher leg kick and I don't have to compromise because of my knee. I have more control of my pitches now than I did all year long."

He says his slider is more effective now, too, which has always been his most important pitch. "When I get too slider-happy I get in trouble," he says. "But now, even when it's up, it's still down, if that makes sense."

It makes about as much sense as any of the other crazy things that happened in Game 1. Dodgers reliver George Sherrill had not given up a home run to a left-handed hitter all year, and the Phillies had not gotten a hit off him all season. Both of those figures changed when Raul Ibanez smoked a three-run home run to rightfield in the eighth inning to give the Phillies some much-needed breathing room. "That was a shock for everybody," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "That was a blow."

So was their curious lack of offense in the late innings. The Dodgers put 11 men on base over the final four innings but scored only twice. They left the bases loaded in the sixth, failed to advance Andre Ethier, who had led with a double, in the seventh, left two runners on in the eighth and had the tying run at the plate twice against Lidge in the ninth.

This game was set up for the Dodgers to win. When starter Clayton Kershaw retired Jayson Werth to lead off the fifth, the Dodgers were still ahead 1-0, and were just a few outs away from going to their much-vaunted bullpen. But then Kershaw suddenly couldn't get a ball over the plate, or, with an LCS-record three wild pitches in the inning, even to the plate. Before the inning was over, the Phillies scored five times and knocked Kershaw from the game. They had the lead they would never relinquish, and soon they would have the victory, home-field advantage and control of the series.

And if they get three more outings like that from their bullpen, they'll soon have a second straight National League pennant as well.

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