The three dirtiest words around Astros camp this year: World Baseball Classic.
Last March, nearly four weeks before he normally would pitch in a meaningful game, closer Brad Lidge was called on to close a first-round game against Mexico in the inaugural WBC. Those close to Lidge say that in his haste to prepare for the preseason tournament he sped up his delivery and never found his normal rhythm during the season. "The [WBC] set him back, no question about it," says Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who as a friend to Lidge summoned him to Houston in late January to help with his mechanics. "Pitchers need time to have a normal spring training."
Lidge went on to have a 1-5 season with six blown saves and a 5.28 ERA, and the Astros finished 1 1/2 games behind the division-winning Cardinals. But Lidge chooses his words carefully when discussing the impact of the tournament on his 2006 performance. "I won't use that, or anything else, as an excuse," he says. "I got into some bad habits early last year. My front shoulder flew open early, which meant hitters saw the ball longer and my control was way off."
A return to his old form -- in 2004 and '05 Lidge had a combined 2.07 ERA and converted a total of 71 of 79 save opportunities -- is crucial to Houston's playoff hopes. With an already sketchy starting staff made weaker by the defection of lefthander Andy Pettitte to the Yankees and the uncertainty of whether Roger Clemens will return for another season, a deep bullpen is more important to the Astros than in recent years. If Lidge gets off to another bad start and manager Phil Garner has to move Dan Wheeler (1.11 ERA after the All-Star break) into the closer's job, one of the best setup men in the majors will have to be replaced. Houston's staff isn't deep enough to survive the domino effect that another Lidge collapse would set off.
Three seasons ago, relying on his fastball and slider, Lidge emerged as one of the game's top closers. He should have been even better last year with the addition of a cut fastball, but no matter how hard he tried -- in side sessions and during games -- he never regained his command. "Starters can experiment in games when they're having trouble," general manager Tim Purpura says. "There's no such thing as trial and error with a closer, because almost every pitch he throws can decide a game."
If you're looking for a hopeful sign of a rebound, consider that Lidge's strikeout rate (12.5 per nine innings) remained excellent last year. But compared to 2005 Lidge gave up five more homers and 13 more walks in '06, when he pitched only 41Ú3 more innings. At the same time Houston went from winning 89 games and reaching the playoffs two years ago to winning seven fewer games last season.
Just as he doesn't blame the WBC for his struggles, Lidge also denies that his playoff meltdown in '05 -- when the Cards' Albert Pujols slammed a game-winning homer off him in Game 5 of the NLCS -- weighed on him last year. "As long as I'm the closer here, I'm going to face Pujols five to eight times a year," says Lidge. "He's a great hitter. He's going to win some, I'm going to win some. I can promise you, I don't even think about that at bat unless someone brings it up to me."
At Ryan's Elite Pitchers Camp at Minute Maid Park, Houston pitching instructors Dave Wallace and Dewey Robinson also worked with Lidge and monitored his progress. While practicing his mechanics, Lidge focused on making sure that he didn't begin his move toward home plate until his back pocket faced the batter. "That's how I know I'm staying back and not rushing," he says.
In spring training Lidge remained focused on mechanics, not blowing away hitters. "Brad will rebound, I'm sure of it," says Ryan. If he doesn't, the Astros won't either. -- Peter King
Issue date: March 26, 2007