VIERA, Fla. -- For three seasons, from 2008-10, Brad Lidge and his Phillies teammates would take the field against the Nationals and have every reason to believe they'd emerge victorious. Such is life when you play 18 times a year for the perennial division champs against the division dregs.
"You don't take anybody lightly in the major leagues, you don't take anyone for granted," Lidge said. "But at the same time, you felt like if you didn't win a series against them, you did something wrong."
At some point in 2011, though, that vibe changed. Knowing they could no longer enjoy a cakewalk over the Nationals, the Phillies realized they were in for a dogfight every time the two clubs met. And they realized the challenge wasn't about to get any easier.
"Now, it's different," Lidge said. "Now, in order to win a series against the Nationals, you better be at your absolute best. That changed. I really saw it last year. You could see it was kind of moving in that direction, but last year it was a big difference. Playing for the Phillies against the Nationals, you could tangibly see the difference."
The Nationals actually took the season series from their nemeses, 10-8, and that's before they acquired Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, before Stephen Strasburg was 100 percent healthy and before Bryce Harper ever set foot on a big-league field.
For all of those reasons and more, Lidge didn't have to think twice about signing with Washington this winter. The progress he had seen from across the diamond over the last year played a big role in his decision.
"It absolutely did," he said today as pitchers and catchers formally reported to Space Coast Stadium. "When you see a team going in the right direction and you think they're a team that's going to be competing for the playoffs, and you have an opportunity to play for them, you definitely take that seriously. All the improvements are going to make them a very attractive team, not only for me, but for other people in the future."
Beset by injuries and inconsistencies in recent years, Lidge no longer is the dominant closer who converted a perfect 48-of-48 save opportunities in 2008 while leading Philadelphia to a World Series title. He received only a one-year, 1 million contract with the Nationals (with performance bonuses based on appearances and games finished).
The 35-year-old, though, seems perfectly content with his new role as a setup man and mentor for the Nationals' pair of young, late-inning relievers: Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard.
"I think there's a lot of things I can teach them about approaches to hitters at certain times," he said, citing the lessons he once learned in Houston from then-closer and mentor Billy Wagner. "These guys are good listeners. Hopefully I can show them by example, but also by the things I've learned in my career."
Lidge said he feels 100 percent healthy after spending the first half of last season on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. He returned to post a 1.40 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 19 13 innings, though his fastball averaged only 89.3 mph (down more than 6 mph from its peak in 2007).
"I don't know where that's going to take my fastball, whether it takes it back to where it was a few years ago or not," he said. "But I feel great right now, arms, legs, everything feels in great shape. I've had trouble getting through spring training the last couple of years, for whatever reason. But I think this year I know my body feels real good right now. I'm going to go nice and easy at the beginning of spring training and make sure I'm peaking when the season starts."
If healthy and productive, Lidge gives an already deep and talented Nationals bullpen another boost. That, along with a revamped rotation and reinforced lineup, could put his new club in a strong position to challenge his old club for bragging rights in a division that is suddenly baseball's best.
"There's definitely a new dynamic," Lidge said. "Of course the Phillies are going to be good with that rotation and the veteran leadership they have. They're not going anywhere. But that being said, the wild-card, I would be very surprised if it didn't come out of this division. And if there's two wild-cards this year, I would be very surprised if they both didn't come out of this division. ... It's going to be a nail-biter the whole way. It's going to be a very hard-fought division."