Friday October 10th, 2008

I still remember the silence. It was October 2005, Game 5 of the NLCS between the Cardinals and Astros, and I was standing in the back of the press box at Minute Maid Park in Houston, shoulder-to-shoulder with other sportswriters readying for the postgame stampede to the media-only elevators. The scoreboard read 4-2 Houston, ninth inning, two outs, 0-2 count. Game Over, in other words. Albert Pujols was at the plate with two men on base, but on the mound was a closer who at that very moment had the aura of invincibility of Iron Man walking out of the cave-- a 28-year-old right-hander named Brad Lidge, the best closer in the National League. You know what happened next: The pitch, thrown as 42,000 screaming fans whapped their Thunderstix, was a hanging slider. Pujols swung.

Then, just grisly silence.

Though Pujols' 3-run shot forced a Game 6, the Astros still advanced to their first World Series two days later. Lidge's nightmare, though, had just begun: he was lit up by the White Sox in the Fall Classic, had a dreadful year in '06, lost the closer's job in '07, and was sent to Philly last winter (then-Astros GM Ed Wade was reportedly ordered to do so by team owner Drayton McLane).

Now here Lidge is again, back in the NLCS for the first time since '05, on the heels of a splendid regular season. But forget that he was a perfect 41-for-41 in save opportunities in the regular season. Forget that he was this year's NL Comeback Player of the Year. Forget that he's saved three of the Phillies' four wins so far in the postseason. Fair or not, Brad Lidge won't convince everyone that he's come all the way back until he blows his slider by a new Pujols in a new pressure cooker moment in the postseason-whether it's against Manny Ramirez in the NLCS or David Ortiz in the World Series, standing at the plate with men on base and the Phillies hanging on to a skimpy lead.

Lidge, of course, has always maintained that his career collapse had nothing to do with that one hanging slider- "My struggling was a combination of things," he says, "it was more that my mechanics got out of whack than anything else" -but even he knows that whether he's forever linked to the Pujols home run will be determined by his performance in this postseason. "I don't want my career just to be defined by one pitch," Lidge said last week. "I look at it this way: it happened and it's made me, I think, more mentally tough right now, here in the playoffs, because I've been there before. But I do want to get back to the World Series and win it and have that to be the last image in my mind for the postseason."

Lidge, who enters games at Citizens Bank Park with the scoreboard blinking LIGHTS OUT LIDGE, didn't exactly live up to his nickname to start October. In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Brewers, he escaped a harrowing ninth-inning jam. Lidge had barely exhaled when Jimmy Rollins ran up to him at the mound at Citizens Bank Park. "You know, you don't have to make it that interesting," the shortstop said. "What happened to those guys who come out and go 1-2-3?"

"I've never been that guy," Lidge said.

Quipped Rollins, "It's never too late to start."

After the game, Lidge joked to reporters, "I'm going to have to buy everyone some Pepto." Since Game 1, though, Lidge has been close to lights out. He noticed early on that Brewers hitters were laying off his signature slider, so he simply overpowered Milwaukee hitters with his mid 90s heater. In Game 1 of the NLCS, his slider was back, and it looked as filthy as ever. "You still have to call him one of the best closers in the game," said L.A. third baseman Casey Blake.

But as Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus has noted, Lidge, a fly ball pitcher who pitches in a homer-happy ballpark, has been very lucky in 2008: despite his high fly ball rate, Lidge has allowed just two home runs this season. Lidge, then, is long overdue to give up a home run. The question is whether it'll come at the wrong time-just as it did three years ago.

Whether it does could determine whether the Phillies win their first World Series since 1980-and whether Lidge can at last put the The Pujols Home Run behind him.

In other words, keep the Pepto close, Philly.

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