"Lights Out" Once Again: How Brad Lidge Proved You Wrong

Ben LivingstonCorrespondent ISeptember 3, 2008

                In the Phillies 2008 Yearbook, each player was asked what single thing annoyed them most in the world. Many admitted that they get frustrated over the things all of us do, such as being woken up in the middle of the night, stepping in chewing gum, or getting caught in traffic. Tom Gordon, likely out of frustration his tumultuous Phillies career, expressed his annoyance for hatred. Out of all the responses, though, Brad Lidge’s was the most intriguing. The one thing that annoys him most in the world is sympathy.

          For somebody who has had as many rough spots as Lidge, that answer speaks volumes. His story was a classic tragedy, the story of a fallen superstar who lived under the burden of a bad memory. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, knowing that it must be tearing him up inside. These feelings were all thoughtful and considerate, but Brad Lidge never wanted your sympathy. He didn’t even feel sorry for himself. While everyone was lamenting over his past, he maintained his composure and focused on the future. What everyone was sure was as a brick wall in his career was simply a bump in the road in his view, yet few others saw it that way. Only this season, as he asserted in the yearbook, has he proven to his detractors that sympathy is the last thing he needs.

          Lidge’s original rise to ninth inning dominance can be attributed to an injury- the first of two that would come to shape his career. After a less-than-stellar relieving performance for much of 2002, Lidge was given the chance to start on September 18th against the Brewers. Lidge was solid, striking out four over three scoreless innings, while also going two-for-two at the plate. However, as fate would have it, he was forced to leave due to a muscle strain. Despite his good showing, Lidge would never start again.

          2003 saw Lidge and Octavio Dotel setting up Astros’ closer Billy Wagner, and he recorded 28 holds and one save while blowing five saves, finishing fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. Following the season Lidge’s biggest breaks came as Wagner, and later Dotel, were traded, leaving him as closer by late June 2004. He certainly didn’t disappoint, going 28/30 in save opportunities and posting a 1.49 ERA along with 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings. This time, he finished 8thin Cy Young voting, tied with the only other reliever to receive votes, Eric Gagne. Lidge’s playoff performance was also stellar, posting an incredible 0.73 ERA. The Astros would lose to the Cardinals, however, in the NLCS.

          The 2005 season would be the most fateful for Lidge. He had another spectacular season, racking up 42 saves along with a 2.29 ERA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings. This time he was selected to the NL all-star team, and even received an MVP vote. His postseason began great, with three saves and a 1.13 ERA over his first six appearances. His seventh would prove disastrous. Lidge came on for the save in the ninth with the Astros up 4-2 in Game 5, three outs away from the World Series. Lidge struck out the first two batters, and got two strikes on David Eckstein. One strike away from the World Series, he gave up a single. Things began to tense up a bit more as he then walked Jim Edmonds. Albert Pujols came to the plate, and you know the rest. Pujols hit the ball about as far as one could humanly hit it with the roof closed at Minute Maid Park. The Cardinals won the game, and had newfound hope.

          All was not lost, however, as the Astros won Game 6 5-1 to win the pennant and a berth in the World Series against the Chicago White Sox. The Astros lost Game 1 5-3. In Game 2, on a cold night in Chicago, the Sox were leading 6-4 going into the ninth. The Astros caught a break, though, as Jose Vizcaino’s two-run single tied it. After Lidge’s Sox counterpart Bobby Jenks blew his save opportunity, it was his chance for redemption in the bottom of the ninth. However, things crumpled again, as Lidge gave up a one-out walk-off home run to Scott Podsednik. Two games later, Lidge would give up the series-winning single to Jermaine Dye in the eighth inning.

The following year, Lidge posted a bloated 5.28 ERA despite getting 32 saves. Many came to believe that Pujols’ shot left Lidge scarred and traumatized, unable to focus and pitch like he did during 2004 and 2005. This is partially true- Lidge began to experiment with new pitches in 2006, backed behind a cutter, possibly because of his struggles during the 2005 playoffs. Whether or not he was actually afraid to use his overpowering fastball because of those struggles is anyone’s guess.

          Lidge lost his closer’s role only after blowing a save on Opening Day 2007. Astros’ manager Phil Garner gave the following explanation for quickly replacing Lidge:

          "So here's what I'm faced with," Garner said. "I've got a club that can't afford to lose another game. And now I've got a guy who I think needs a lot of pitching time to get his scheme down, to where he's back and he throws the ball and he says, 'This is where I'm going to get an out, and the game's over.' And he'll show me when that's happening. And he'll get his job back. But I don't have the margin for error right now."

          Lidge was understandably angry about Garner’s decision:

"I'm a little bit frustrated," he said, "just because it happened so fast."

          Still, Lidge maintained that Pujols had nothing to do with his struggles. On April 19th, he said the following to ESPN writer Jason Stark:

          "I understand why people say it," Lidge said, "because last year didn't go well. So I understand how people think that. And to be honest, I can't say a dang thing about it until I start pitching better.

"But the truth is, I think there are a variety of other things that got in the way. And the thing people don't understand is that I face Albert like eight times a year. It's not like I always wonder what it's going to be like to face him again. I face him all the time."

In his middle-relief role, Lidge’s ERA continued to inflate to 10.13 by April 22nd. On the 23rd, the Astros faced the Phillies at Citizen’s Bank Park. Behind his new cutter-lead arsenal, he started his outing by allowing two quick hits, leaving runners on second and third with no outs. The Astros were up 11-4, but things were hardly running smoothly for Lidge.

The mound conference that followed changed the scope of his career. Astros catcher Brad Ausmus came out to talk to his seriously struggling pitcher. He and Lidge decided that it was time to get rid of the cutter, in favor of Lidge’s powerful fastball and slider. Lidge struck out the side on 11 pitches, stranding the runners, and leaving his bloated ERA behind.

After that game, Lidge’s ERA plummeted continuously (to 2.34 by June 15th) because he had become nearly untouchable. Lidge had returned to his peak form, and all he had to do was to go back to his bread-and-butter pitch, his fastball- no therapy or counseling was required. Lidge had that Pujols had nothing to do with his struggles, and he began to prove it only days later.

Lidge pitched well despite knee troubles that caused him some trouble, and a month on the Disabled List, but he re-gained his closer’s role on July 17th, only two games after returning. He was 19/24 on save attempts over that span, but he had a large 4.75 ERA. Some took this, along with his early season struggles, as a sign that Lidge still wasn’t over his rocky 2005 postseason, but he maintained that his issue had been mechanics and injuries.

The Astros decided it was time to move on after 2007. After the season, the Astros sent Lidge and Eric Bruntlett to the Phillies for Michael Bourn, Mike Costanzo, and Geoff Geary. They then traded for the Jose Valverde, who would replace Lidge as the closer. The Phillies decided to take a chance on Lidge in order to move Brett Myers back to the rotation in order to replace free-agent Kyle Lohse.

The flurry of attention for Lidge following the trade showed that he was still considered by many to be a shadow of his former self, as well as a significant injury risk. The latter would prove to be true, as Lidge re-injured his knee on one of his first Spring Training sessions and needed minor surgery that would keep him out past opening day. He remained positive and excited despite the surgery.

Like the injury that had ended his brief career as a starter and brought him glory as a closer, this one would prove quite beneficial as well. Upon beginning to throw again, Lidge realized he wouldn’t be able to pitch with as much velocity because of the injury. So, instead, he focused on the location of his fastball, and the movement of his slider. He made his first appearance on April 6th , and recorded his first save as a Phillie on the 7th. Nothing but success followed- he didn’t allow a run over his first 17 innings, and the rest is history. Lidge made the All-Star team easily, and to date, he hasn’t blown a save in 33 chances (Mike Gonzalez has the second most saves among pitchers without a blown save, with only eight). What’s more, the number of home runs he’s surrendered is staggeringly low- only two.

Lidge’s fastball had dropped from 98-102 mph to 94, but with his new strategy he struck out batters as if they were little leaguers who completely lacked plate discipline. His new slider was even more devastating than it had been in 2004 and 2005, with so much bite that batters routinely chased it even if the catcher couldn’t catch it. He was much less overpowering, but his command has resulted in only two home runs being hit against him to date. Despite that total he’s still somewhat of a fly-ball pitcher, as he doesn’t strike out batters with an overpowering fastball but instead makes them take bad swings at the ball. If he gives up a hit, he sticks with his fastball/slider combination, and it’s rare for him to give up another.

His resurgence has allowed the Phillies, who had a weak bullpen in 2007, to be 63-0 when leading after eight innings. He was the fantasy baseball anti-sleeper, a guy who had his struggles, yet was still seen as overrated by many players.

Now, of course, it’s always possible that Brad Lidge’s struggles were primarily emotional, and that he’s one tough blown save away from another exile to the land of middle-relief (or worse). Some Phillies fans might be biting their nails if he closes a key game near the end of September, worried that he might blow up. That’s just part of being a closer; people don’t remember when you do well, only when you mess up. Despite this frustrating reality, Brad Lidge has persevered, and his incredible return to the top entertains anything but sympathy.