Defending champs ready for Dodgers

Brad Lidge was at the centre of the celebrations, mobbed on the mound and then later bathed in bone-chilling ice water inside the clubhouse. Those recent ninth-inning meltdowns? A fading memory for the Philadelphia Phillies closer.

Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Brad Lidge

DENVER — Brad Lidge was at the centre of the celebrations, mobbed on the mound and then later bathed in bone-chilling ice water inside the clubhouse.

Those recent ninth-inning meltdowns? A fading memory for the Philadelphia Phillies closer.

Lidge was struggling badly going into the NL division series against the Colorado Rockies, blowing a league-high 11 save chances during the regular season.

Four big outs, two saves and zero runs later, the Phillies just might have their dominant closer back. And the timing couldn’t be better.

Lidge struck out Troy Tulowitzki to end Game 4 on Monday, sending the defending World Series champions on to the NL championship series. They’ll play Thursday night against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium in an NLCS rematch from last year.

Just like Lidge, the Phillies are rounding into shape.

Cliff Lee pitched two masterful games against Colorado and the offence rediscovered the long ball after a brief power outage.

These are looking more and more like the Phillies that beat the Tampa Bay Rays in five games during last season’s World Series.

The Phillies spared no bubbly Monday, dousing everyone within spraying distance. Ryan Howard caught the brunt of it, even getting some of the suds in his eye.

“I’m tasting the pain of success,” Howard said, grinning.

First, though, they had to experience the sting of disappointment.

A talented Phillies team was swept out of the playoffs by the streaking Rockies in 2007, leaving a bitter feeling. That fuelled their post-season run last season, and they’re picking up steam again in 2009.

“That kind of told us that we weren’t quite ready,” manager Charlie Manuel said of the series loss in ’07. “That we had to improve mentally and physically.”

The Phillies have done just that.

But the celebration Monday was short-lived. The Phillies shifted their attention back to the Dodgers, a team they went 3-4 against in the regular season.

“We know we have a long ways to go. So this is the last party,” Jimmy Rollins said. “We know that it’s going to be a great series and one of those hectic battles — just like this one.”

The Phillies have proven adept all season at the art of the comeback. That was the case again in the series clincher Monday as they rallied for three runs in the ninth off Huston Street.

The usually reliable Rockies reliever gave up a two-out, two-run double to Howard and the go-ahead single to Jayson Werth.

All that came after Philadelphia squandered the lead an inning before. Yet the Phillies surged back again, which is becoming a trait of this team.

“We get to a point where nobody wants to make the last out,” Rollins said. “It’s not spoken about. Everybody goes up there and concentrates more. You try to do whatever you have to do to get on and score runs.”

Street knew closing the game wasn’t going to be easy. It never is against Philadelphia’s potent lineup, which led the NL in homers for the second straight season with a franchise-record 224.

“They’re good players,” said Street, who converted 35 of 37 save chances during the regular season. “That group battles you over there.”

And wins in all sorts of ways, not just with the long ball. The Phillies didn’t have their first multihomer game until Game 4, when Shane Victorino and Werth went deep.

Until then, they found other avenues.

Like catching a break Sunday when Chase Utley reached on a ninth-inning infield single that should have been ruled a foul ball because it grazed him in the batter’s box.

The Phillies parlayed that into a sacrifice fly by Howard in a 6-5 win.

Plate umpire Jerry Meals admitted after the game that he missed the call. But Rockies manager Jim Tracy refused to harp on the play, saying there were other factors — such as an inability to come through in the clutch on offence — that led to Colorado’s demise in the game and the series.

“They did what they had to do to beat us,” Tracy said.

Philadelphia’s acquisition of Lee in July has paid off in the post-season. The left-hander was electric against Colorado, throwing a six-hitter in the series opener and then giving up one earned run through 7 1-3 innings in the clincher.

Not bad for his first playoff appearance.

By closing out the series on Monday, the Phillies got to rest 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels for a few more days. The lefty didn’t even make the trip to Colorado, staying behind after the birth of his son.

Now, they’re a step closer to defending their title.

“We knew from the start we’d have to work a lot harder,” Rollins said. “In the past we were the team in second place looking to knock somebody down. This time, we are the team that everybody is coming after. We understand when they say you are defending something.”

For Lidge, it’s about proving something — that he can return to form.

He was so dependable last season that he converted all 48 save opportunities, including seven straight in the post-season.

Then he lost his touch this year, finishing 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA. He even briefly lost his job in September.

But Manuel stuck with Lidge in the playoffs, hoping he’d get his swagger back. Now, it appears he has.

“When I look at him sometimes in the last couple of nights, he’s been more relaxed,” Manuel said. “His stuff is there. He’s been a tremendous pitcher and, believe me, he’ll still be as good as he ever was.”

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