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Phillies relievers trump heralded LA 'pen

Phils' relief trumps heralded LA 'pen

LOS ANGELES -- So much for the dominance of the Dodgers bullpen.

The curtain went up on the ballyhooed National League Championship Series on Thursday night and the Los Angeles bullpen that was supposed to be the difference in this best-of-seven tournament came up empty.

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It was the much-maligned Phillies relief corps that prevailed in the 8-6 squeaker at Dodger Stadium. Actually, the game was closer than the score.

But just when I thought Joe Torre's lights-out crew was going to send the Phillies packing, lefty reliever George Sherrill couldn't find home plate in the eighth inning and Raul Ibanez blasted a three-run homer.

That put Philadelphia up 8-4 and turned the spotlight on the visitors' 'pen, which was supposed to be their Achilles' heel this October.

It wasn't exactly lights out, but the Phillies will take it.

This battle has a long way to go before one of the teams advances to the World Series, but after just one game, the Phillies were able to send a strong message about the bullpens.

Torre said Sherrill walking two batters and giving up the home run "was a shock for everybody, especially the walks."

After one game, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel shows he can hunt and peck, shuffle his cards with his relief corps and piece together another of what has become trademark heart-pounders.

"We got outs when we had to" is the way Manuel put it, the most provocative understatement of the night.

Brad Lidge walked a ninth-inning tightrope to get his third consecutive save this posteason. As the saying goes, it wasn't pretty but it worked.

Lidge, hero of the Phillies' 2008 World Series championship who blew 11 saves during the regular season, was far from perfect.

After Ryan Madson allowed two runs in a shaky eighth, Lidge allowed a leadoff single to Matt Kemp before Casey Blake grounded into a double play.

With most of the 56,000 fans on their feet, sensing another Los Angeles miracle, Lidge walked James Loney. Ronnie Belliard popped out and it was over.

CHARLIE'S ANGLES
Since Cliff Lee's complete game in Game 1 of the Division Series, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has had ample opportunity to maneuver his relief corps through the first five games of the postseason. A look at how the Phillies bullpen has contributed:
Game IP H ER ERA
DS 2 4.0 1 1 2.25
DS 3 6.0 5 2 3.00
DS 4 1.2 2 1 5.40
LCS 1 3.2 6 2 4.91
Total 15.1 14 6 3.52
To me, the scene, if not the tone, was set for the Phillies bullpen in the sixth when J.A. Happ, holding a 5-4 lead, got Rafael Furcal to ground out with the bases loaded.

And in the seventh after Andre Ethier opened with a scorching double off Antonio Bastardo, Chan Ho Park put the next three batters down, starting with Manny Ramirez, who'd blasted a two-run homer earlier.

Lidge and his teammates have read the clippings and heard all the previews about how the Dodgers, who lost to the Phillies in five games last year, would be much more formidable this year because of their relief pitchers.

"They obviously do have a great bullpen. I would never take anything away from those guys," said Lidge. "But I like our bullpen as good as anybody's."

Lidge was on the mound last October when the Phillies defeated Tampa Bay to win the World Series.

And it was the struggling Lidge who was on the mound, thanks to Manuel, to get the final out when the Phillies clinched this year's National League East title.

That was a tremendous gesture by Charlie, but there might have been more method to his madness than just making sure Lidge could take another bow.

I talked with Lidge an hour after that moment and it was obvious his confidence had reached its highest point of 2009. He proved that by saving two of the three victories over Colorado in the Division Series.

And then Thursday night.

"It is just one game, but we did the damage on their 'pen tonight," said Lidge.

NL Championship Series
Gm. 1 PHI 8, LAD 6 Wrap Video
Gm. 2 LAD 2, PHI 1 Wrap Video
Gm. 3 PHI 11, LAD 0 Wrap Video
Gm. 4 PHI 5, LAD 4 Wrap Video
Gm. 5 PHI 10, LAD 4 Wrap Video

I asked him when was the last time he had this much confidence in his pitching.

"I think the last week of the regular season I felt really good," he said. "I had the chance to get in a few games. I felt like everything was coming back. I was focusing and locking in on what I have to do and that puts me in my best. Right now, I'm able to do that. The control that I really haven't had all year in my pitches is there now. In the postseason, there's a little different level of focus and that helps me."

Lidge says he knows "how good we can be when everyone is right and we're doing what we're doing. Last year we were the best bullpen in baseball and I feel like this year it's the same thing."

Manuel says when a reliever goes up against another team's best hitters and is successful, there's a trickle-down effect to the entire bullpen.

"It definitely breeds confidence," he said. "Any time they can get somebody like that out, it's really good. Any time that Brad Lidge gets people out, especially in big moments like tonight, I think it's good."

This series has a long way to go. Winning a game in Los Angeles was a virtual must for the Phillies, who send Pedro Martinez against the Dodgers on Friday, then face the possibility of playing three games at Citizens Bank Park beginning Sunday.

"Tonight was huge," said Happ. "If we go in there and try to throw strikes, good things will happen for us. We know the Dodgers have one of the best bullpens in the league and there's nothing we can do about that except go out, throw strikes and get the same result we did tonight."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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