It was the 2003season, and the Houston Astros decided to try a hard-throwing 26-year-oldrookie righthander, Brad Lidge, as setup man for closer Billy Wagner. Lidge,who had already endured four surgeries after being drafted out of Notre Dame in1998 and had gulped two cups of coffee in the big leagues the year before, wasconfident that the ups and downs he'd suffered had steeled him for life in themajor leagues. But on Aug. 15 he gave up a game-winning homer to Adam Dunn ofthe Cincinnati Reds, and any equanimity he thought he possessed went right outthe window. He threw a better tantrum than fastball that day. "Talk aboutout of control," Lidge recalled last week. "You didn't want to bearound me. I was throwing my glove and screaming."
Five weeks laterWagner gave up a two-run, ninth-inning homer to the San Francisco Giants' PedroFeliz and was tagged with a loss. Silently, he walked to the dugout and throughthe tunnel to the clubhouse. He sat on the chair in front of his locker, tossedhis glove aside, shook his head and quietly mumbled, "Oh, well."
Just by watchingWagner, Lidge learned a valuable lesson in self-control. "And all I couldthink," he says, "was, I've been wasting so much energy on things thatdon't matter."
Wagner was tradedto the Philadelphia Phillies that off-season, and Lidge assumed not only hisjob but also his appreciation for the big picture. "I learned perspectivefrom Billy," Lidge says, "who was about as good a role model as arelief pitcher could ever have.
"After I gotdrafted in '98, I missed a lot of the '99 season with arm problems. I had twosurgeries in 2000, one in 2001 and one in 2002. So my ultimate goal became verysimple: I just wanted to have a healthy season."
Over the next twoyears Lidge stayed healthy and established himself as one of the game's bestclosers, striking out 260 hitters in 165 1/3 innings and saving 71 games with anasty combination of a 97-mph fastball and a hard-breaking slider. (He'sexperimenting with a split-fingered fastball this spring.) But Wagner's lessonsserved 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 ofthe National League Championship Series and the White Sox' Scott Podsednik--whohad been homerless all year--in Game 2 of the World Series, en route to aChicago sweep.
Lidge, 29, whowas 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 overthe way a very good season ended. "It's not a very colorful thing tosay," he says, "but that's baseball. Maybe I just don't take the gameseriously enough, but I don't consider it traumatic. Are you kidding? Like thePujols home run. It's not the last pitch I'll ever throw. Even if it was, itwouldn't be the end of the world. It wouldn't be the end of the world if I gaveup 10 of 'em. And why feel awful after the St. Louis series? We won it. We madeit to the World Series. Albert didn't. I'll take going to the World Series evenif I give up a big home run any day."
The day afterPujols's game-winner, Wagner called Lidge and told him simply, "You're thebest." Lidge says he appreciated the support even though he wasn't reallydoubting 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 pitch80 times a year, and I'm going to give up a couple of game-losing homers. Ifyou let it eat at you, you're not going to be very good."
Despite havingfive other top closers to choose from, U.S. manager Buck Martinez turned toLidge to pitch the ninth inning of Team USA's first WBC win, 2-0 over Mexico onMarch 7. Lidge threw a 1-2-3 ninth, and when he got second baseman Jorge Cantuto pop weakly to the second base for the final out, he didn't stage a showycelebration. He simply got in line and shook hands with his new teammates. Justanother day at the office.
In 2004 BradLidge set a National League record for strikeouts by a reliever with 157. (Themajor 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 259innings give him the best strikeout rate of all time (minimum 50 innings).