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COMMENTARY

Two teams, two philosophies

October 26, 2008|Mike Berardino | Berardino is a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

PHILADELPHIA — When the phone rings in the Rays' bullpen these days, everyone jumps.

No matter the inning, no matter the situation, uncertainty reigns.

And while rookie David Price has nailed down the Rays' last two victories, including a seven-out job in Game 2 of the World Series, Manager Joe Maddon isn't about to anoint the big lefty as the team's new closer.

"We don't have a closer," Maddon said.

Contrast that mix-and-match dynamic with the environment across the way.

They haven't yet set up rocking chairs or recliners in the Phillies' bullpen, but by comparison it's a land of comfort and ease. That's because the roles have been clearly defined, starting with closer Brad Lidge and working backward through setup man Ryan Madson and situational lefties J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre.

This doesn't exactly make Charlie Manuel a push-button manager, but those late innings become much less stressful for everybody when there's a clear pecking order.

"I think Charlie does a very good job managing the bullpen," Eyre said. "When you already know what your role is, it's easier to relax. We all know when we're going to throw."

It wasn't always this way. Veteran Tom Gordon opened the season as the closer as Lidge bought a little more time coming off knee surgery.

Once Lidge returned, Gordon held down the eighth for a while. Later the job passed to right-hander Chad Durbin.

When Durbin ran into some trouble late in the season, Madson moved up a notch. That's when everything seemed to click into place for a bullpen that finished second in the majors (behind Toronto) with a 3.19 ERA.

No longer would Madson have to conserve energy for a possible two-inning exposure. Now he could come out and throw gas for the eighth and the eighth alone.

Suddenly, a fastball that once topped out at 95 mph was hitting 99 on the radar gun.

"It does feel good to be the guy when the phone rings in the eighth and it's going to be me," Madson said. "I can relax a little bit in the sixth and seventh. We all want a significant role to play. You feel a little more worth."

It should be pointed out the Rays' relievers have thrived this year as well. They finished fifth in the majors in ERA (3.55) and tied the Phillies for third with a save-conversion rate of 76%.

But the loss of veteran closer Troy Percival to injury and some recent struggles by fill-in Dan Wheeler and hard-throwing Grant Balfour have forced Maddon to go batter to batter once his starter leaves the game.

That makes him not unlike an explosives expert called in to defuse a homemade time bomb. Pull the wrong wire and you've got a major problem.

Game 5 of the American League Championship Series? That was a classic case of bullpen chaos.

It's hard to imagine a group as cohesive and orderly as the Phillies' pen blowing a seven-run lead with seven outs to go. Lidge's presence alone seems to eliminate that possibility. The Notre Dame product has converted all 47 save chances this year, including the postseason. That crushing homer he gave up to Albert Pujols in the 2005 playoffs seems long ago.

"Brad hasn't given any games away," said Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee. "He's been phenomenal. And the way Madson has stepped up to get us to Brad has been tremendous."

At its best, a bullpen almost becomes a single organism -- a living, breathing, six-headed monster with clear functions and many ways to destroy you.

Or, as Eyre puts it, the late innings become like a 4-by-400 Olympic relay. The bullpens that keep making the smoothest pass of the baton tend to get the medals.

"Robb Nen told me a long time ago, 'The job of a bullpen is to get the ball to the closer,' " said Eyre, who teamed with Nen on the 2002 Giants team that reached this stage. "Doesn't matter what hands it goes through as long as it gets to him with the lead. The whole purpose is to get the ball to the next pitcher, with minimal damage or no damage."

In other words, don't cross the wrong wires.

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