CLEARWATER, Fla. — A timeless baseball scene, the kind that has been going on for generations in this game, unfolded in the hallway outside the coaches’ locker room in Phillies camp early Thursday morning.
If you closed your eyes, it could have been Sandy Koufax talking to a young lefty back in Vero Beach ... or maybe Yaz giving tips to a hitter back in the day in Winter Haven … or even Eddie Mathews schooling a group of eager, young hopefuls in Pompano Beach.
It is that moment when the accomplished comes back to camp to impart wisdom on the aspiring.
So there they were, Jeanmar Gomez and Brad Lidge, deep in conversation before Thursday morning’s workout, one longtime closer, one relative newcomer to the role, two members of a unique baseball fraternity bonded by high-wire adrenaline, the sweet euphoria of success and the spleen-splitting agony of failure.
"It's really tough," Lidge said of the emotional toll that the role can take on a closer when he lets a lead slip away and his team loses a ballgame. "You never want to feel like you’re letting your team down. I think for me when I wasn’t throwing well or when I’d have a bad game it was like, 'Man, I let everybody else down.' "
Few know the elation that a closer can feel upon nailing down a tight game better than Lidge. He became a Phillies icon by going 48 for 48 in save chances then dropping to his knees and shouting, “Oh, my God, we just won the World Series,” one magic October night back in 2008.
He also knows the horse kick in the gut that comes with stumbling in the role. There is no safety net for a closer. Failure is completely deflating. Lidge felt plenty of that in 2009 when he followed up his storybook season with 11 blown saves, the most in the majors that year.
So Lidge can completely sympathize with what Gomez went through as the Phillies' closer last year.
He knows the satisfaction that Gomez felt shaking hands with his teammates 37 times after saves.
He also knows the despair that Gomez felt when he pitched so poorly in September that manager Pete Mackanin had to remove him from the closer’s role.
Lidge, who retired after his right arm gave out in 2012, is in camp this week as a guest instructor, and if you think he’s here to sign a few autographs and spin yarns in the bullpen, think again.
As soon as he committed to his visit to Phillies camp, he knew there was one guy he wanted to speak with.
“I kind of wanted to talk to a lot of guys in the bullpen, but specifically Jeanmar, for sure,” Lidge said.
“He had a great season last year. Maybe it didn’t end quite the way he wanted. But for a guy in his first season of closing — he earned that role and he stepped on the accelerator for five months.”
Lidge is also seeking out Hector Neris in this camp. The hard-throwing Dominican with the nasty splitter has the makings of a future closer.
“I think my job here is to make the learning curve happen as fast as possible for these young guys because the arms are there for them to be great setup guys or closers,” Lidge said.
Lidge’s advice to Gomez centered on how to stay strong for a full season. He recalled getting similar lessons as a young reliever from Billy Wagner, then a teammate in Houston.
“That first full season of closing is physically and mentally taxing,” Lidge said. “We talked about ways to stay fresh and stay at a high level all year. He’s shown he can do it. This year it’s just going to be more about maintenance for a full year.”
Lidge spoke with Gomez about his daily, pregame, flat-ground throwing program, about knowing when to back off and save bullets.
“Maybe take a day off now and then so when you get near that finish line in September, you can accelerate up instead of feeling tired,” Lidge said.
Conserving strength for the long haul is one of the reasons Gomez, 29, has decided not to pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic next month.
In 2008, Lidge struck out 11.9 batters per nine innings thanks in part to a devastating out pitch, his hard, downward-breaking slider. The Torpedo.
Gomez is not a typical closer. Over his career, he has struck out just 5.5 batters per nine innings. He relies on command of his sinker and his defense to get him through innings. The command and the movement on the sinker abandoned Gomez in September, causing him to struggle.
Lidge believes Gomez’s recipe can work if he’s called on to close again this season. Mackanin has anointed Gomez the closer — he’s sticking with him much like Charlie Manuel did with Lidge in 2009 — but roles can always change.
“I think you can have success [without a big out-pitch],” Lidge said. “It’s a little bit tougher. You have to be a little more precise [with your location], but you can do it.
“I really believe Jeanmar can have that type of season that he had for five months last year if he doesn’t get tired.
“He’s got everything he needs to close games. He’s got the stuff. He’s got the right mentality, too.”
He also has a year of experience on the high wire.
“With closing, I think it’s just a matter of going through it,” Lidge said. “Experience is the best teacher.”