2010 MLB PLAYOFFS;NLCS BEAT;Papelbon can look to Lidge

PHILADELPHIA – For four years, Jonathan Papelbon was a dominant
ninth-inning force who safeguarded Red
Sox leads. Imagine, then, how
foreign it must have felt for him this season to blow a career-high
eight saves, notch a 3.90 ERA that was more than double his career
average and appear, well, human.

Brad Lidge need not imagine. He has lived it.

In 2008, Lidge finished 48-for-48 in save opportunities,
including 7-of-7 in the playoffs, for the World Series-champion
Philadelphia Phillies. Then, in ’09, he went 0-8, led the majors
with 11 blown saves and saw his ERA swell to 7.21. And while knee
pain and a torn elbow tendon conspired to poison his season, there
was another reason for his struggles.

Lidge lost his mojo.

It’s back now, and the Phillies are relieved. Lidge has returned
to optimal health and supreme confidence, showcased again last
night when he threw a scoreless inning during the Phillies’ 4-3
Game 1 loss to the Giants. He has yielded two earned runs since
Aug. 1.

And if Lidge can recapture his dominance, he’s certain that
Papelbon can, too, as long as the
Sox closer doesn’t lose faith in his
ability.

”For any closer, I think confidence is huge,” Lidge said
before last night’s game. ”Last year, I didn’t get the results I
wanted, and it definitely hurt my confidence. For me, you’ve got to
go through a couple games where you feel like you’re making
(hitters) look silly again, and then, all of a sudden, you’re like,
`Wait a minute, I don’t even remember why this was so hard.’ ”

During the season’s final two months, Papelbon often said he
believed his stuff, namely his splitter and slider, was as good as
ever. In fact, he had grown so comfortable with the splitter that
he threw it 21.7 percent of the time, an increase from 9.4 percent
in 2009, according to the statistical database FanGraphs.com.

If anything, Papelbon may have stuck with his secondary pitches
for too long when they weren’t as effective. He allowed at least
one run in each of his last four appearances and seven of his final
nine. Beginning with his career-high 48-pitch blown save Sept. 5
against the Chicago White
Sox at Fenway Park, he posted a
10.61 ERA in his last nine outings.

At times, Papelbon’s confidence must’ve been shaken. And if any
self-doubt had crept into his mind, it stands to reason that his
performance would suffer.

Lidge can attest that supreme self-confidence can aid a closer
in overcoming a dip in the quality of his pitches.

”I think you have to force yourself to believe in yourself
first,” Lidge, a fastball-slider pitcher, said. ”My fastball
didn’t quite come back like I was hoping it would this year, so I
had to force myself to know that it didn’t matter, that I was still
going to pitch fine and it was going to work. It’s easier said than
done, and it’s hard to know when that (confidence) turns over. . .
. Even if you’re going through a bad rut, eventually it will turn
itself, as long as you trust in yourself.”

Papelbon has plenty of reasons to remain confident. He is
eligible for one more round of salary arbitration and stands to get
a bump from the $9.5 million he earned this season to about $12.5
million for 2011.

Following next season, Papelbon is likely to be headed to free
agency. A return to dominance could net Papelbon an enormous
multiyear payday, even if it may come elsewhere, with the Red
Sox likely turning over the closer
role to Daniel Bard.

”We have confidence in (Papelbon),” general manager Theo
Epstein said. ”He’s got a little bit of work to do to get back to
the elite level where he was at. Being consistent at that elite
level is what it’s all about to close games in (the AL East). He
does it really well. He’s still a really good closer. He’s still
going to help us win games.” Lidge’s revival began when he started
believing that again. Papelbon could be well served to do the
same.

– slauber@bostonherald.com