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Changing role suits Brad Lidge just fine as Nationals sprint out of gate

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
SAN DIEGO -- It's not like he's traveling with a cap and gown or anything. But at 35, Nationals reliever Brad Lidge has graduated to a different stage of his honor-roll career.

Where once he lived in the eye of the ninth-inning hurricanes in Houston and Philadelphia, he now, in a manner of speaking, helps lay sandbags for the Nationals to help keep the leaks out. Even with closer Drew Storen on the disabled list with a bum elbow, Lidge is taking a back seat to hard-throwing Henry Rodriguez in save situations.

And he's OK with it.

"I've been hurt the last couple of years," Lidge says. "Tyler Clippard can close, Storen, Henry Rodriguez throws 100 miles an hour.

"I'm enjoying being a guy who can relay my experience and approach and watch these guys go to work."

In seven appearances this season, Lidge has a 5.14 ERA and two saves. The saves came on opening day, against the Cubs, and on April 17, against the Astros. But manager Davey Johnson has increasingly turned to Rodriguez, a 25-year-old Venezuelan who has retired 21 of the past 25 batters he's faced over his past seven appearances.

Rodriguez, whose average fastball over 55 career appearances is 98.3 m.p.h., has converted all five of his save opportunities this season. Lidge has converted two of four.

"In the back end, it's nice to have his experience and his settling effect on guys," Johnson says of Lidge, who signed with the Nats as a free agent this year. "He's joined a really talented bullpen, and he's been a plus.

"Henry is one of the very fine up-and-coming closers. He's come a long way from last year. Having Lidge show him the way in the early going. ..."

Washington's pitching has been incredible so far this season, both starting and relief. Nationals starters led major-league rotations with a 1.72 ERA entering Wednesday's game in San Diego. The starters had thrown 26 consecutive scoreless innings until Jordan Zimmermann surrendered a solo homer to Orlando Hudson with two out in the fifth inning. The relievers' 3.15 ERA ranked fifth in the NL.

Rodriguez, 25, is opening eyes all over the league.

"Henry was probably our best reliever in the spring and it's continued on during the year," Johnson says. "Lidge is a great insurance policy. Both have closed out games this year. Obviously, I've gone a little more to Henry. He's younger, and I don't want him sitting. I think Brad can handle that a lot better than a younger guy."

There was a time when Lidge was that smoke-throwing guy. During his 10-year career, Lidge has struck out just over 31 percent of the hitters he's faced, and his whiff rate of 12.0 per nine innings if the highest all-time among pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings.

All but officially immersed in his twilight years, it's not as if Lidge isn't getting any action. Only Rodriguez (nine), Ryan Mattheus (nine) and Clippard (eight) have made more appearances than Lidge.

"It is" a different role," Lidge says. "But I've had a couple of save opportunities. And we're waiting for Drew to get back."

Storen, who had bone chips removed this spring, is expected back sometime toward midseason.

"When he does come back, it's going to be fun," Lidge says. "Our bullpen is going to be so strong.

"It already is."
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