Eventually, Brad Lidge is bound to go postal, right? He has to have one of those full-on, spitting mad, temporarily insane YouTube moments we're accustomed to seeing from frustrated athletes. Sooner or later he will channel his inner Serena and threaten to do anatomically impossible things with a baseball to the next person who dares to mention the miserable season he's had as the Phillies' closer. Isn't that how it happens these days?
Lidge hasn't lost it yet, which is a wonder. It isn't just that he has had a year of injury and ineffectiveness—inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee, an 0--7 record, a major-league-leading 10 blown saves in 41 chances through Sunday and an ERA (7.24) that's risen faster than the deficit. It's that his year from hell has followed a year sent straight from heaven. Lidge was perfect from April through October in 2008, converting all 48 of his save chances, including the one that sealed Philadelphia's Game 5 victory in the World Series and the city's first title in 25 years.
It's like going to sleep as James Bond and waking up as Inspector Clouseau. "My preparation is the same, my intensity, my focus, my effort, they're all the same as last season, but the results just—aren't," the 32-year-old Lidge says. "There are definitely times when I wonder, What's going on here?"
The rest of us are wondering the same thing, but not so much about his pitching. What's going on with all this self-control? No athlete in recent memory has gone from being perfect one season to putrid the next, so if ever a player could be forgiven for snapping, it's Lidge. Yet he continues to handle his struggles with grace and civility, which is just so ... unfashionable.
Hasn't he been paying attention? That's not the way it's done at a time when rage is all the rage. If you're on the verge of losing to an underdog in the U.S. Open, you take it out on your racket and the line judge, the way Serena Williams did. If an opponent shows little class by taunting, you show even less by slugging him, as Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount did after the Ducks' loss to Boise State. If the kick returner on your team lets a shot at a season-opening upset slip away, you take your frustrations out by spray-painting his lawn, the way Bills fans did after Leodis McKelvin's fumble at New England.
Even with all of those angry precedents to follow, Lidge's stack remains unblown; not once has he had to release an insincere, intentionally vague apology for some embarrassing loss of temper. Manager Charlie Manuel pulled him in a save situation against the Nationals two weeks ago, the first time as a Phillie that Lidge had suffered that indignity. Some relievers might have grabbed the biggest bat they could find and done a little impromptu demolition work in the clubhouse, but Lidge stayed in the dugout, demonstrably rooting on his replacement, Ryan Madson.
Staring out at a light rain last week, Lidge matter-of-factly discussed his performance, his affable demeanor never changing even as he used words like "crappy" and "terrible." After a particularly galling blown save against the Astros, his former team, he had sat in front of his locker so distraught that a Phillies staffer told him it would be fine if he chose not to speak to the media. Instead of taking the invitation to duck out, he took a deep breath and relived the ugly outing for his questioners—facing things, as Manuel puts it, "like a man."
What a novel approach. Philadelphia is as unforgiving a city as there is in sports, but the fans have been so thrown by Lidge's display of maturity that they can't quite bring themselves to unload on him with both barrels. They haven't gone completely soft: A blogger asked readers to express their feelings about Lidge in 10 words or fewer, and one of the responses was, "Thanks for the World Series ring, here is your suitcase." But the Lidge they deride online and on talk radio is the same Lidge who patiently signs their autographs at Citizens Bank Park even in the worst of times, which is why when he came in for the ninth inning of a game against Washington last week, the fans stood and cheered as if they weren't scared to death that he would let another lead slip away. (He didn't.)
It helps, of course, that the Phillies are headed back to the postseason despite Lidge's inconsistency and that their supporters are still pleasantly buzzed from the World Series title he was so instrumental in winning. "They've been great," Lidge says. "Even now when I'm having a tough time, the main thing I get from people is, 'Thanks for being a part of something last year that I'll remember my whole life.'"
That has helped him keep his composure, along with the belief that now that his knee is feeling better, he just might be able to wipe away this season's failures by finishing 2009 exactly the way he did '08—on the mound in the championship clincher. "It would make it a successful season if I could get back to that place," he says, "celebrating on the field with my teammates, like little kids."