CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) -It was clear from the crowd gathered around the field this was no ordinary intrasquad minor league game.
Everyone from general manager Pat Gillick to manager Charlie Manuel came out to see Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge take the mound Thursday for the first time since having arthroscopic knee surgery last month.
While the big leaguers played the Pittsburgh Pirates across the way, all eyes were on Lidge. He didn't disappoint.
Lidge retired four of the five batters he faced, striking out three and walking one. The right-hander looked sharp enough that he just might be ready to pitch for the defending NL East champions on opening day.
``I felt great with everything from warming up to throwing in the game,'' Lidge said. ``There is nothing better than facing hitters and that was a lot of fun.''
Lidge was the key offseason acquisition for the Phillies, who strengthened their bullpen and starting rotation in one move. Getting the former All-Star closer from the Houston Astros allowed the team to move Brett Myers back into the rotation.
While Myers and Cole Hamels give Philadelphia a formidable 1-2 punch among the starting five, Lidge solidifies a deep bullpen that includes former closer Tom Gordon and setup men J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson.
If Lidge isn't healthy, that puts a damper in the team's plans. That's why his outing was closely scrutinized by front-office types, Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee.
Lidge threw 19 pitches, including 11 strikes. The only major leaguer he faced was teammate Jayson Werth, who walked on five pitches. Lidge threw fastballs, sliders and a two-seamer. His next outing could be in a major league game this weekend.
``I don't know what they are going to do,'' he said. `` My goal is to get ready for the season no matter where they put me. I feel mentally that's going to be the case. I don't want to jinx myself, but I feel real comfortable with where I'm at right now and I feel I need a few more outings to get ready.''
Lidge went 5-3 with 19 saves and a 3.36 ERA in 66 games last season with the Astros. He had the fifth-most strikeouts (88) among major league relievers and the sixth-highest strikeout ratio (11.82 per nine innings). But he also blew eight save chances and temporarily lost his closer's job to Dan Wheeler at one point during the season.
The Phillies are counting on Lidge to regain the reliable form he showed before a long homer by Albert Pujols during the 2005 NL championship series started his troubles.
Lidge converted 29 of 33 save opportunities and posted a 1.90 ERA in 2004. He was 42-for-46 with a 2.29 ERA in '05. But after allowing Pujols' mammoth homer, Lidge had problems the next two seasons. He had 32 saves in 38 chances in 2006, but his ERA was 5.28.
Injuries contributed to some of Lidge's problems last year. He was sidelined from mid-June to mid-July because of a pulled oblique muscle in his left side, and he had surgery on Oct. 1 to repair torn cartilage in his right knee.
Convinced he was fine, the Phillies sent outfielder Michael Bourn, reliever Geoff Geary and minor league third baseman Mike Costanzo, a former first-round pick, to Houston for Lidge and utilityman Eric Bruntlett.
But Lidge re-injured his knee when he caught a spike in the mound on his first pitch of batting practice this spring.
Lidge didn't get a chance to make a fielding play against the Pirates, but feels comfortable that he can get off the mound and cover first base if necessary.
``I wasn't worried about it,'' he said.

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