Nasty slider, good command and fortune
Closer Lidge's memorable 2008 a confluence of events
It's hard to fathom a closer going through a entire season without having that one blow-up inning in a save situation, just one outing when you give up a lead because your velocity is off, your command just isn't there or a great hitter gets hold of a great pitch.
But that's just what Brad Lidge did in 2008. He was perfect for 48 of them, saving 41 games in 41 chances during the regular season and seven more in as many opportunities during the postseason for the world champion Philadelphia Phillies.
"It was a pretty amazing year," Lidge said. "One of the biggest things for me was better command of my slider. When I get that going, I do well."
In 2000, Lidge developed a killer slider, a replacement pitch he developed when throwing curveballs began to hurt his elbow following surgery. It became his out pitch, diving in or away sharply, befuddling hitters.
It all came together for Lidge last season as the Phillies won the World Series.
"I was a pitcher," he said. "I didn't throw as hard as I could. I had a great defense behind me. You have to have a little luck to never blow a save. You could throw the same way and blow a couple."
Lidge never did, and so it was only appropriate that he struck out Eric Hinske, the last Tampa Bay hitter, for the final out to clinch the World Series title. That was a neat little bow on a dream summer for a relief pitcher who is the all-time leader in strikeouts (12.5) per nine innings for pitchers with at least 300 appearances.
"That moment, that was indescribable," Lidge said. "That's why we play the game. When the guys piled on me at the mound, I couldn't breathe. But I never felt so good in my life."
This is the same guy who missed parts of his first four professional seasons with a progression of injuries, including a torn rotator cuff and a broken forearm. This is the same guy who was the winning pitcher in a landmark six-pitcher no-hitter for the Houston Astros against the New York Yankees in 2003.
This is the same guy who struck out the side on 11 pitches in his first All-Star Game appearance in 2005 and then, three months later, got tagged for memorable postseason home runs by Albert Pujols and Scott Podsednik. The two-out, ninth-inning home run by Pujols delayed the Astros' first-ever trip to the World Series. The Podsednik homer beat the Astros in Game 2 in what became a four-game Series sweep for the White Sox.
There was a suspicion that Lidge's psyche had been permanently damaged by those two home runs, especially when he struggled through 2006 in which he went 1-5 and pitched to an inflated 5.28 ERA. Those bad home-run memories were not the problem, according to Lidge.
"A lot of people assumed that," he said. "But it wasn't that. I had a lot go wrong that next season. I couldn't throw my slider for a strike."
Hitters sat on his fastball and Lidge struggled. There still were some positives. He posted his third straight 100-strikeout season and nailed down his 100th career save.
Still, there was a feeling that Lidge might never regain the form that had produced 71 saves in the previous two seasons for the Astros. And almost as soon ex-Phillies general manager Ed Wade took over that post in Houston, he shipped Lidge to Philadelphia in a five-player trade.
It was a new start for Lidge, but the rebirth was delayed when he needed surgery on his right knee in February. He was activated the first week of April and did not allow an earned run in his first 17 appearances, kick-starting his memorable season.
The save streak ended early this season when he blew one against San Diego on April 18. Then his right knee started acting up again, and Lidge went to work on a solution.
"My push off isn't 100 percent," he said. "Right now, I'm trying to work around it, adjusting my mechanics. I hope it's better, soon."
So do the Phillies.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.