A closer rides a rollercoaster, with extreme highs and lows usually packed closely together, sometimes separated by harrowing twists and turns — not to mention the threat that the whole thing might just fall apart, like one's worst fears about the Coney Island Cyclone. Inevitably, the ride comes to an end, and that passage has arrived for Brad Lidge, who at the age of 35 has decided to retire after a career with more than its share of high-profile ups and downs.
Lidge spent 11 years in the majors with the Astros, Phillies and Nationals, serving as closer for six playoff teams, three pennant winners and one world champion. Armed with mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider, he dominated hitters, racking up strikeouts at a record rate. He was the last man standing in 2008, closing out the Phillies' World Series clincher against the Rays with a strikeout of Eric Hinske, capping a perfect season in which he converted 48 saves without blowing a single one.
He also gave up one of the most memorable home runs in postseason history, a bomb by Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS that NASA scientists still aren't sure has landed. In 2009, just a year after his perfect season, he played a significant role in the Phillies' World Series defeat by the Yankees. That latter failure was part of a larger slide due to arm troubles that prevented him from completing another healthy season, factoring into his retirement decision.
Injuries more or less bracketed Lidge's entire professional career. Chosen by the Astros with the 17th pick of the 1998 draft out of Notre Dame, he missed time due to injuries in each of his first four minor league seasons, including a torn rotator cuff, and threw just 100 innings from 1998-2001 while working as a starter. His strong and healthy 2002 season at Double-A and Triple-A was punctuated by spot appearances with Houston in April and May, as well as a September cup of coffee. Despite a career high 131 innings that season, the Astros' fears about his lack of durability led them to steer him to the bullpen. The decision paid off hadsomely, as Lidge quickly worked his way into the seventh-inning setup role in front of Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, one of the most dominant late-game trios of the era. On June 11, 2003, he threw two innings and was credited with the win in a no-hitter against the Yankees in which the Astros used five relievers following starter Roy Oswalt's early departure due to a groin injury.
Lidge took over closer duties in mid-2004 following Wagner's departure for the Phillies via free agency and Dotel's inclusion in a three-team deal that brought Carlos Beltran to Houston. Lidge saved 29 games in 33 save opportunities and delivered a 1.90 ERA while striking out a whopping 157 hitters in 94 2/3 innings, a rate of 14.93 per nine, just 0.05 shy of Eric Gagne's record-setting rate the year before. Powered by Beltran, who hit eight postseason homers, the Astros came within one win of the NL pennant before falling to the Cardinals in a seven-game NLCS. Lidge sparkled in defeat, striking out 14 while allowing just one hit and two walks in eight innings.
He earned All-Star honors and saved 42 games the next year, as the Astros surmounted the Cardinals in an NLCS rematch to win their first pennant in franchise history. Houston won despite Lidge yielding the aforementioned, mammoth three-run ninth-inning homer to Pujols that turned a 4-2 lead into a 5-4 deficit in Game 5; the Astros, who led the series 3-2, had to travel to St. Louis to close the series out in Game 6. That shot foreshadowed Lidge's struggles in the World Series, where the White Sox swept the Astros. He took losses in Game 2 via a walkoff homer by Scott Podsednik, and again in Game 4 via an eighth-inning tally that provided the game's only run.
Whether or not it was due to confidence issues in the wake of those high-profile failures (as some charged), Lidge slumped to a 5.28 ERA in 2006, though he did save 32 games, and he battled abdominal and knee injuries the following year, the latter of which required offseason surgery. Traded to the Phillies in a five-player deal that sent Michael Bourn to Houston, he reeled off a spectacular 2008 season for a team that won the pennant behind Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels, converting all 41 save attempts and striking out 11.9 per nine with a 1.95 ERA during the regular season. He then converted all seven save opportunities in the postseason, including the World Series clincher.
The Phillies re-signed Lidge to a three-year, $37.5 million deal as a free agent, but unfortunately, that was his last completely healthy season. He gutted out 31 saves the following year, but his 7.21 ERA, 11 blown saves and eight losses attested to his erratic performance. Even so, manager Charlie Manuel stuck by his closer, preferring to leave the very capable Ryan Madson in the setup role — a testament to just how set in their ways winning managers can become in rationalizing sticking with "their guys."
Lidge converted three postseason save opportunities as the NL East-champion Phillies won the pennant, but fell prey to the Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series, as the Bronx Bombers rallied for three ninth-inning runs. Never known for his ability to hold runners on, Lidge was caught off-guard by Johnny Damon's steal of second base, which was immediately followed by his famous dash to an uncovered third base. Damon's presence on third prevented Lidge from throwing a slider in the dirt and required him to rely on an increasingly ineffective fastball; Alex Rodriguez hammered one to knock home the go-ahead run and the rally continued. The Yankees wound up beating the Phillies in six games.
Lidge underwent surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and remove bone chips after the 2009 season, and missed most of April and May 2010 due to further complications. He did save 27 games with a 2.96 ERA, but his increasing reliance on his slider — by that point thrown more often than his flagging fastball — continued to take its toll. Shoulder problems limited him to just 19 1/3 innings and one save in 2011, the final year of his deal. He signed with the Nationals back in January, and had a brief opportunity to close when Drew Storen began the year on the DL, but he was rocked for a 9.64 ERA in 11 appearances before drawing his release in late June.
Ultimately, Lidge's career ended ingloriously, but the high points and the resiliency he showed along the way in battling back from his high-profile defeats were nontheless impressive. For his career, he finished with a 3.54 ERA and 225 saves, and a strikeout rate of 11.919, a whisker behind Wagner's 11.982 for the lead among pitchers with at least 600 innings (he had 603). That puts into numbers what we instinctively know: his career may have been relatively brief, but he could miss bats with the best of them. He rode the rollercoaster, yes, but he did so with a certain kind of dignity.