Forget that he was one of the players most responsible for the Astros' edging out the Giants for the National League wild card last season and that he notched his first postseason save in October. A month later Brad Lidge reached a more surprising milestone. "Someone recognized me," says the 28-year-old closer. "When you're a pitcher for the Houston Astros and a stranger notices you in a mall in Colorado, you know things have really changed."
Here's how quickly things changed last year for the righthander from Englewood, Colo.: Through late June he was a little-known middle reliever with two career saves. Then Houston traded Octavio Dotel to Oakland and moved Lidge into the closer's role. By season's end he had emerged as one of the best in the majors, then helped the Astros come within one win of their first World Series. "We all knew Brad had great stuff," says catcher Brad Ausmus. "Did we know he'd turn into the monster he became in just a few months? No."
Lidge converted 29 of 33 save opportunities and set a league record for strikeouts by a reliever (157), while registering the highest rate of strikeouts per nine innings in history (14.93) among pitchers with at least as many innings in a season as he had (942/3). In the playoffs Lidge pitched in seven of Houston's 12 games and threw two or more innings in five of them. In the NL Championship Series he held the Cardinals scoreless for a total of eight innings in four appearances.
"One thing we have going into this year that we didn't have for a good part of last season is a dominant closer," says lefthander Andy Pettitte. "We have a lot of confidence handing the ball to Brad."
Lidge has a wicked slider and a 97-mph fastball, but his development as a pitcher was stunted by injuries. A first-round draft choice out of Notre Dame in 1998, he was regarded as one of the most gifted arms in the Astros' organization, but in each of his first four seasons, through 2001, he finished the year on the disabled list, primarily with arm trouble.
"Brad has always been a full-gonzo guy, going all out, and I think that's hurt him," says general manager Tim Purpura. "I had some knock-down, drag-out fights [with him] because he'd do things we didn't like in his rehab. He'd try to go too fast before letting his body heal. This spring there's a maturity about him. He's pacing himself and being cautious."
Lidge will be counted on to close out games started by what should be a formidable rotation led by Pettitte and righthanders Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. "The combination of those three and Brad closing games gives us confidence that we can overcome whatever question marks we have with the offense," says Purpura, who lost centerfielder Carlos Beltran and second baseman Jeff Kent to free agency and won't have rightfielder Lance Berkman back until May as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
But there are concerns about the durability of that rotation. Clemens, last year's Cy Young winner, turns 43 in August. Pettitte's sore elbow limited him to 15 starts before he shut down and underwent surgery on Aug. 24. (He'll be ready for Opening Day.) Oswalt was the NL's lone 20-game winner last year despite pitching with a strained rib-cage muscle that required cortisone injections before each start. "My mechanics were off," Oswalt says. "I was wild. I wasn't throwing the ball where I wanted to, mostly because I was protecting the strain."
The way the season ended also took a lot out of Oswalt. Relieving Clemens on three days' rest, he pitched the last two innings of the Astros' 5--2 Game 7 NLCS loss to the Cardinals, giving up one run. "I was mentally drained after the season," says Oswalt. This winter he took two months off from baseball activities, staying at home in Weir, Miss. (pop. 553), with his wife, Nicole, and their newborn daughter, Arlee. Oswalt reported to camp refreshed and feeling stronger than ever.