VIERA, Fla. - Brad Lidge isn't ready to open his arms to the role of bullpen sage just because he's got 10 major league seasons and 223 career saves under his belt. But he was lucky enough to have established closers like Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner reach out to him when he was younger, and the 35-year-old Lidge is more than willing to do the same for the Nationals' young relievers, paying it forward so they can better adapt to and succeed in their roles.
"If I see something going on the last couple of years, I really like to pull guys aside and say, 'From what I've learned, this is what I think you should know.' That being said, especially with guys with good heads, I don't mind that role at all. ... There's going to be a lot of stuff I do off the field, but hopefully more on the field," Lidge said.
The one-year deal for $1 million he signed in January could pay off handsomely for the Nationals, who get a veteran right-hander to add to their power arms in setup roles and a mentor for closer Drew Storen, who idolizes Lidge and will have him at his disposal for some bullpen counseling.
"He's got a great head on his shoulders," Lidge said of Storen, who saved 43 games last year, his first as a full-time closer. "He's smart, especially for a guy who hasn't been out long in professional baseball, and professional baseball is a world different from any kind of collegiate or high school. ... I think he knows himself pretty well and I'll be talking to him a lot this year on his physical preparation and mental preparation for games."
That process has already begun: Lidge is lockering next to Storen, so they can pull their stools up and chat away about what it takes to be a successful closer. On the other side of Storen is the stall belonging to right-hander Tyler Clippard, who thinks Lidge's arrival can help a pitching staff that would benefit from veteran leadership.
"We need guys like that in our bullpen and on our team," Clippard said. "This is an organization that hasn't experienced a lot of winning. We're right there at the cusp of getting to that point. The only way you get there is to have that experience, so to have a guy like that in our clubhouse and down in our bullpen that we can talk to who has been through the wars of the playoffs and winning world championships, he's a great guy to have around."
But while he's experienced the highs, like saving all 48 of his chances during the regular season and postseason in 2008 on the Phillies' path to a World Series crown, Lidge has also dealt with his share of hardship and disappointment. In the 2005 postseason, while pitching for the Astros, Lidge served up a mammoth home run to Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series that saved the St. Louis Cardinals' season. After his perfect 2008, he had to battle spring injuries the next two seasons. Lidge was 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA in 2009, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel stuck with him long enough for him to record 31 saves.
"That's the very important aspect of this game," Clippard said. "It's not always going to be great, and a lot of people in this organization can vouch for that. You need people who have seen both sides, and that doesn't happen a lot. If you're on a team that's winning, they're always winning; if you're on a team that's losing, they're losing. To have a guy that's been on both sides is a huge deal."
Lidge looks at Clippard and says the workload the goggled right-hander has shouldered for the past two seasons reminds him of his early days in Houston, when Lidge worked 85 and 94 2/3 innings in successive years in 2003-04. Lidge hopes the collection of hard throwers in the Nats' bullpen this season will mean manager Davey Johnson doesn't have to rely so heavily on Clippard.
"Clippard's been throwing tons of innings in games the last couple of years, and I did that my first couple of years," Lidge said. "But it's nice to be able to talk to him about it and try to take some of that off him this year, because he can't sustain it. Hopefully, people don't expect him to. It'll catch up to you and you have to do your best to protect the guys who are great pitchers for you."
In his first camp with the Nationals, Lidge also wants to protect himself. He knows what he does in spring training will set the stage for what begins in April.
"For me, especially these last couple of years not making it out of spring training after sustaining injuries in spring training, my big focus right now is that I don't worry too much where I'm going to be in the setup role," he said. "I'm just making sure I'm ready for opening day, and doing the things I need to do to get ready for that. ... Physically, I'm going to prepare by making sure I ramp up slow and get through spring training so I'm peaking when spring training is over and not with two weeks to go."