It was the 2003
season, and the Houston Astros decided to try a hard-throwing 26-year-old
rookie righthander, Brad Lidge, as setup man for closer Billy Wagner. Lidge,
who had already endured four surgeries after being drafted out of Notre Dame in
1998 and had gulped two cups of coffee in the big leagues the year before, was
confident that the ups and downs he'd suffered had steeled him for life in the
major leagues. But on Aug. 15 he gave up a game-winning homer to Adam Dunn of
the Cincinnati Reds, and any equanimity he thought he possessed went right out
the window. He threw a better tantrum than fastball that day. "Talk about
out of control," Lidge recalled last week. "You didn't want to be
around me. I was throwing my glove and screaming."
Five weeks later
Wagner gave up a two-run, ninth-inning homer to the San Francisco Giants' Pedro
Feliz and was tagged with a loss. Silently, he walked to the dugout and through
the tunnel to the clubhouse. He sat on the chair in front of his locker, tossed
his glove aside, shook his head and quietly mumbled, "Oh, well."
Just by watching
Wagner, Lidge learned a valuable lesson in self-control. "And all I could
think," he says, "was, I've been wasting so much energy on things that
Wagner was traded
to the Philadelphia Phillies that off-season, and Lidge assumed not only his
job but also his appreciation for the big picture. "I learned perspective
from Billy," Lidge says, "who was about as good a role model as a
relief pitcher could ever have.
"After I got
drafted in '98, I missed a lot of the '99 season with arm problems. I had two
surgeries in 2000, one in 2001 and one in 2002. So my ultimate goal became very
simple: I just wanted to have a healthy season."
Over the next two
years Lidge stayed healthy and established himself as one of the game's best
closers, striking out 260 hitters in 165 1/3 innings and saving 71 games with a
nasty combination of a 97-mph fastball and a hard-breaking slider. (He's
experimenting with a split-fingered fastball this spring.) But Wagner's lessons
served Lidge well last October, when, after losing just four games all season,
he was tagged for losses in three of his final four postseason appearances,
surrendering ninth-inning homers to the Cardinals' Albert Pujols in Game 5 of
the National League Championship Series and the White Sox' Scott Podsednik--who
had been homerless all year--in Game 2 of the World Series, en route to a
Lidge, 29, who
was in Phoenix last week for the first round of the World Baseball Classic,
says that even in his private moments, he hasn't felt like punching a wall over
the way a very good season ended. "It's not a very colorful thing to
say," he says, "but that's baseball. Maybe I just don't take the game
seriously enough, but I don't consider it traumatic. Are you kidding? Like the
Pujols home run. It's not the last pitch I'll ever throw. Even if it was, it
wouldn't be the end of the world. It wouldn't be the end of the world if I gave
up 10 of 'em. And why feel awful after the St. Louis series? We won it. We made
it to the World Series. Albert didn't. I'll take going to the World Series even
if I give up a big home run any day."
The day after
Pujols's game-winner, Wagner called Lidge and told him simply, "You're the
best." Lidge says he appreciated the support even though he wasn't really
doubting himself. "I'm pretty realistic about this job," he says.
"One or two bad outings won't make or break my career. I'm going to pitch
80 times a year, and I'm going to give up a couple of game-losing homers. If
you let it eat at you, you're not going to be very good."
five other top closers to choose from, U.S. manager Buck Martinez turned to
Lidge to pitch the ninth inning of Team USA's first WBC win, 2-0 over Mexico on
March 7. Lidge threw a 1-2-3 ninth, and when he got second baseman Jorge Cantu
to pop weakly to the second base for the final out, he didn't stage a showy
celebration. He simply got in line and shook hands with his new teammates. Just
another day at the office.
In 2004 Brad
Lidge set a National League record for strikeouts by a reliever with 157. (The
major league record of 181 was set by Dick Radatz of the Red Sox in 1964.)
Lidge fanned only 103 batters last season, but his 369 career punch-outs in 259
innings give him the best strikeout rate of all time (minimum 50 innings).
[This article contains a table. Please see hard copy or pdf.]