Commentary

Ryan Madson proves to be a cut above

Phillies' setup man goes with deadly cutter in eighth inning to dominate Giants

Updated: October 22, 2010, 3:03 AM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

SAN FRANCISCO -- In trying to decipher what had gone so wrong for the Phillies, who were stuck in a 3-1 series hole against the Giants in the National League Championship Series entering Thursday's Game 5, reliever Ryan Madson came upon a fascinating discovery.

While reviewing his performance in Games 2 and 4 of the series, Madson deftly noted that the Giants were not swinging at his changeups, a puzzling predicament since the changeup was his strikeout pitch, perhaps his most important pitch. In Game 2 on Sunday, Madson threw three changeups, yet Giants hitters didn't swing at any of them, and none was a strike. During his 32-pitch performance in Game 4 on Wednesday, Madson threw 12 changeups, six for strikes, but most importantly, Giants hitters swung at just two of them.

[+] EnlargeRyan Madson
Kyle Terada/US PresswireRyan Madson threw 13 pitches, 10 for strikes, as he struck out the side in the eighth inning.

Entering Thursday's game, this was quite a problem.

During the regular season, Madson threw his changeup 28.7 percent of the time, which was second only to his fastball, which he threw 52 percent of the time. Not since his rookie year -- when he threw the pitch almost 30 percent of the time -- had Madson relied so much on his changeup. Frankly, without a changeup, Madson feared he could not be the successful setup man he had been in the second half of the season.

But with his team on the brink of elimination, Madson knew he had to make an adjustment. When Phillies starter Roy Halladay tweaked his groin in the second inning on Thursday, it became quite obvious to Madson that he and likely several relievers would have to pitch since Halladay did not have his best stuff and his pitch count had elevated in the first inning.

"We just wanted to get in the game and finish off what he started," Phillies closer Brad Lidge said. "We were fired up. There was no way we were giving up anything tonight."

Halladay eventually exited the game after the sixth with the Phillies clinging to a 3-2 lead. Sure enough, the Philadelphia bullpen played a large part in deciding Thursday's game.

"Halladay is a marvelous worker, who usually pitches lots of innings," reliever Jose Contreras said. "Today was a little bit different. Remember you're now dealing with the best four teams in baseball. It's not going to be easy. He threw six innings. … He needed the bullpen."

Contreras began the seventh inning while lefty J.C. Romero and Madson began to warm up in the bullpen. While warming up, Madson noticed he had tremendous movement on his cutter after slightly lowering his arm angle.

"I've done it before but I had gotten away from it," Madson said.

Immediately, it dawned on Madson that this would be his adjustment. Madson kept throwing the cutter, a pitch he had used this season with frequency, in the bullpen and it kept darting.

Madson did not know what catcher Carlos Ruiz would call, but surely the cutter would play an important part whenever he pitched.

Contreras and Romero combined to pitch a scoreless seventh inning, meaning Madson would be counted on to pitch the eighth. As luck would have it, Madson would face the middle of the Giants' order: the hot-hitting Buster Posey, the bopper Pat Burrell and playoff hero Cody Ross.

While Madson was warming up on the mound to start the eighth, Ruiz noted the drastic movement on his cutter.

"I called the cutter, and when you can feel that it's working well, you just keep calling it," Ruiz said. "And tonight for him the slider and the cutter were working so well."

[+] EnlargeBrad Lidge
Harry How/Getty ImagesBrad Lidge hadn't pitched since Game 1, but he had little difficulty retiring the side in order in the ninth inning.

By the end of the eighth, which turned out to be a defining inning, one that played a large part in the Phillies 4-2 win against the Giants, Madson's adjustment had made all the difference.

Six of Madson's 13 pitches were cutters. The other seven were sliders. Posey, Burrell and Ross all struck out swinging. Most amazingly, Madson didn't throw a single changeup.

Lidge finished the game with a scoreless inning, but it was Madson who had locked down the most dangerous part of the San Francisco lineup.

"We needed that," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of Madson's performance.

The transformation that had turned Madson into one of the best relievers in the National League came in 2007 when he missed a large chunk of the season with a strained right shoulder -- an injury Madson believes was caused by his lack of preparation.

"I realized that talent can only take you so far," Madson said.

After returning in 2008, Madson, at the suggestion of former Phillies reliever Tom Gordon, began a routine of shoulder strength exercises that not only kept his shoulder healthy, but also raised his velocity from an average of 92.3 mph in 2007 to 94.7 mph by 2009. After recovering from a freak toe injury in April, Madson finished 2010 with a 2.55 ERA.

"I think he's the best setup man in baseball, without a doubt," Contreras said.

Yet part of Madson's development was not only physical. Part of it was realizing which pitches are working on a certain night, like say a cutter, and which ones aren't, like his changeup.

"This is a boy's game that's played by men," Romero said. "That's part of his growing maturity, to know which pitch is working for him."

Just what pitches Madson will throw for the remainder of the series is a secret for now. Surely, the Giants will make an adjustment to Madson's adjustment. And there is the possibility that Madson simply won't be able to match the command and control of the cutter that he had on Thursday.

"People think you feel the same every day, but you feel different most of the time," Madson said. "One day it feels great. Something clicks and you just go with it."

For one night at least, a cutter kept the Phillies in the playoffs.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.