VIERA, Fla. - Michael Morse swung and drove a low pitch from Brad Lidge into the ground, the ball dribbling to a stop at the lip of the infield where grass turns into dirt in front of the hole at shortstop. On the next pitch, Morse barely made contact on a letter-high offering, and the ball fluttered into the netting of the batting cage above him and dropped to his feet.
Considering Morse knew what Lidge was throwing, Lidge's second session of live bating practice Thursday was much better than his first.
"A couple of days ago, the first time I threw against guys, I was trying to take it real easy," Lidge said. "Sometimes, when you're telling yourself to take it easy, you end up throwing pretty bad. I kind of realized I need to take it easy and be smart, but at the same time, still keep firing the ball in there. Today, I tried to put a little more on it."
It looked like it. Lidge found his slider and mixed it with fastballs, showing a decidedly downward tilt on both pitches. The hitters he faced, even with advance warning, had trouble handling either offering.
"I'll take that," Lidge said. "You can tell a lot from how guys are swinging. I think when they know what's coming and you still get balls that aren't hit very well, you definitely feel good about how you're throwing."
Ryan Mattheus, who is in an uphill battle to claim a spot in the bullpen, was also impressive Thursday, turning up the velocity a notch during his live batting practice session. His slider was especially effective.
"I like the job that Mattheus did last year," manager Davey Johnson said. "The one thing he's working on is for the slider to have a better tilt to it and I think one of the reasons he was less successful against right-handers (in 2011) was that I think his arm strength wasn't as good. He got around the side of it and it was more flat. This year, he seems to have a much stronger arm and he has the tilt back on that slider, which doesn't bode well for right-handers."
It's especially important for Lidge to be able to pick up where he left off late last season with the Phillies. After missing most of the season with elbow and shoulder problems, the veteran right-hander posted a 1.40 ERA in 25 games over the final nine weeks of the campaign.
"I feel like I'm right on track," he said. "I know where I was at the end of last season and I feel like I'm pretty close to where I was then. For this time of year, I feel as good as I need to be right now."