Lights-out October illuminates Lidge's potential

Updated: March 7, 2005, 10:31 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- If there was no such month as October, Reggie Jackson would have no nickname.

If there was no such month as October, it's possible that no one would even know that Bill Mazeroski ever owned a bat.

Brad Lidge
APThe playoffs pumped Lidge with plenty of adrenaline.

And if there was no such month as October, Brad Lidge might still be as top secret as a CIA operative in Ghana.

But fortunately for all those men -- not to mention all of us -- October exists. And guys like this are living proof that the coolest thing about October is that it changes lives.

Sometimes forever.

Now it wouldn't be quite accurate to say the whole world was watching last October when Lidge was stalking out of the Houston Astros' bullpen to fire off 12 1/3 of the most unhittable postseason innings ever pitched (20 strikeouts, only five hits, and an insane 0.73 ERA).

But that, of course, was simply because he wasn't permitted to fire any of them for the Yankees or Red Sox.

And you won't have to think too hard to recall that those devious Yankees and Red Sox spent the first couple of weeks of October trying to prevent most of America from verifying that there was even any such thing as the National League playoffs.

But word apparently leaked out, because over the winter Lidge actually got recognized in a mall in Colorado. Which might not have happened to any athlete in history who didn't once wear shoulder pads.

Then this spring, there has been even more dramatic proof that something has changed in Lidge's life:

It used to be that when people asked him to sign autographs, they handed him a ball with about 20 other names on it. Now, though, he's noticed, they're "wanting me to sweet spot those balls." Which means, among other things, that you can probably find them on eBay right now. (Just do us a favor and don't check till you finish reading this.)

So apparently, Brad Lidge is now officially on baseball's map. Which is the kind of thing that can happen to a guy who:

  • Struck out more hitters last season (157)in relief than 22 starting pitchers who pitched more than 200 innings.

  • Struck out more hitters, in fact, than all but 14 starting pitchers in the entire National League -- even though every one of the starters who beat him pitched at least 70 more innings than he did (94 2/3).

  • Struck out 14.93 hitters per nine innings -- the highest whiffing ratio in history by anyone who pitched as many innings as Lidge.

  • Became the fourth pitcher in history (with at least 50 IP) to punch out more than 40 percent of the batters he faced (42.6) -- joining Eric Gagne in 2003 (44.8), Billy Wagner in 1999 (43.4) and Armando Benitez in 1999 (41.0).

  • Entered games with 30 runners on base -- and allowed exactly two to score (best percentage in baseball).

  • And, in a related development, allowed those poor hitters who came up with men in scoring position to hit an absurd .101.

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a dominating season.

    Which is cool and all that. But it has just about nothing to do with why Lidge is now considered one of the elite closers in baseball.

    No, for him to take the elevator to the Gagne-Wagner-Mariano Rivera floor of his profession, it took something else entirely -- October.

    We know there are many Americans who sincerely believe that the Astro who did the most to elevate his profile last October was a guy named Carlos Beltran.

    That, however, would be incorrect.

    Because the actual answer would be Brad Lidge. Seriously.

    True, Beltran did use October to earn himself enough money to buy the Netherlands. But if we're talking sheer profile-raising, "Beltran was already known as a good player," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "But I don't think too many people knew about Brad Lidge until he got in the playoffs. Then, they began to know."

    What Lidge did in those playoffs had to be witnessed to be fully comprehended. So if you were busy immersing yourself in some sort of Yankees-Red Sox fog bank back then, here's some of what you missed:

  • After allowing a run in his first appearance of the postseason (when Garner brought him in to save Game 2 of the NLDS, with one out in the seventh inning), Lidge pitched six more times, faced 32 more hitters and gave up precisely one hit, while striking out 17.

  • He got eight outs in his first outing of the playoffs, got nine outs in his last outing and wound up averaging more than five outs per postseason appearance -- something even the great Mariano has done just once in eight years as a closer.

  • In the NLCS, against a Cardinals lineup that led the National League in runs scored, Lidge pitched eight shutout innings (more than any reliever had ever pitched in any LCS without giving up a run). The Cardinals' not-so-grand offensive totals: 14 strikeouts, one hit (a single).

  • And, in a 24-hour span that summed up his 166-pitch October, Lidge threw a stunning 67 pitches in Games 3 and 4 of that NLCS -- and became only the third pitcher in postseason history to rack up saves of six outs or more on back-to-back days. (The others: Goose Gossage and Byung-Hyun Kim.)

    Had he done that stuff in that Yankees-Red Sox series, there probably would be about seven books on the stands about him as we speak. But the people who saw that performance with their own eyes don't need to read a book to know it was as spectacular a stretch of October dominance as you'll ever behold.

    "You'll sometimes see pitchers who don't want to be out there, but it's not often you'll see a hitter who wants no part of it," Astros GM Tim Purpura said. "But when Brad was out there, we saw that a lot from our playoff opponents. Guys walked up and didn't want to be there."

    "It was unbelievable to watch," said one of Lidge's bullpen mates, Brandon Duckworth. "We just sat and laughed. You feel sorry for whoever is coming up now."

    "I don't think you should ever take away from what anybody has done in any other era," said Garner, who played in postseason games closed by Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage. "But what Brad did stands up there with any modern closer in a postseason setting."

    When Lidge looks back on these games now, he can still feel the energy rush of the most important games he'd ever pitched: "I've never felt anything like the adrenaline surge in those games," he said.

    He can still see Scott Rolen walking up there with the tying run on base in Game 3 of that NLCS -- and striking out. He can still see that parade of Braves he faced in an 11-hitter marathon in Game 2 of the Division Series.

    He still agonizes over the only extra-base hit he gave up in the entire postseason -- an Adam LaRoche double in that game. He still second-guesses himself for getting too slider-happy that day.

    "I can remember those two games against the Braves and those four games against the Cardinals like they were yesterday," Lidge said. "I can still remember, pitch by pitch, what we did with every one of those hitters."

    But what people remember about him from those games was that suddenly, here was a guy just 27 years old, in only his fourth month as a closer -- and already, he had that Smoltz-Gagne-Rivera kind of aura. Already, his manager seemed to be maneuvering through every game to try to get Brad Lidge to the mound.

    "To me, he always had that," said the previous legendary closer in Astros history, Billy Wagner (now a Phillie). "He just was never in that [closer's] role before. But we always knew he had the personality and the ability that it took to do what he did. Everyone knew that if he was in the game, the hitter had no chance."

    Well, everyone in Houston knew it, obviously. You wouldn't have seen the Astros trade away two closers in eight months -- Wagner and Octavio Dotel -- if they didn't know Lidge had the look of a guy who could be as big a monster as either of them.

    But it takes the bright lights of October for local heroes to turn into national luminaries. And once those lights shine, it's often impossible to find an "off" switch.

    As the buzz around Lidge grew in that postseason, though, Lidge wasn't aware of anything but the intensity of the games his team was mixed up in night after night.

    "My feeling is, you don't want to step outside the moment and think about things as they're going on," he said. "You stay in the moment."

    But not everybody gets to live out that moment. And now that Brad Lidge has lived his, the bigger question is: Where will that moment propel him next?

    All around baseball, scouts and GMs gush about his stuff and presence -- particularly for a guy who was drafted as a starter and had never made even a minor-league relief appearance until 2002. However, it's amazing how many of them then raise a "but" that has nothing to do with that stuff or presence:

    "But," said one AL GM, "it will be interesting to see what the effect is of all those pitches and all those innings."

    In an age of micromanaged three-out specialists, Lidge seemed to tumble right out of an '80s time warp. He had 21 regular-season appearances last year of more than three outs. Then came October, when he got six outs in two of his seven outings, eight outs in another and nine in another.

    "The only thing that's scary to me about him," Wagner said, "is that he's young and he won't say no. If they ask him to throw three, four innings, he'll try to do that. You can't do that and have any longevity as a closer."

    Ominously, the Astros' setup crew looks from afar to be even thinner this spring than it did last fall. Lidge's primary setup man, Dan Miceli, took the free-agent yen and headed for Japan. So the Astros will audition pitchers such as Chad Qualls, and even veteran nomads Russ Springer and Dave Burba, for that role.

    But in the meantime, other clubs report Houston is actively shopping for eighth-inning types. And that search has as much to do with the man who will pitch the ninth inning as it does with whoever winds up pitching the eighth.

    "I know two things about Brad," Garner said, as he ruminates on his closer's future. "I honestly don't know how he can pitch any better than he did last year. And I know we can't use him the same way."

    Garner took a lot of October heat for "over-using" Lidge. But the manager said: "I don't think, for that short a period, it was a problem. But to put that much stress on a guy for two or three years -- that could be a problem. That's why I say we have to do something different. I don't think any pitcher could hold up if he were used like that."

    So if they do in fact know that, and they do in fact deal for bullpen help, and they do in fact limit Lidge's workload, then that should leave only one question: How good can Brad Lidge be?

    In many cases, when you're talking about people this talented, the answer has a lot to do with how good they want to be. So it should tell us something that Lidge knows exactly which rungs on the ladder he's trying to climb toward.

    "There are three guys I want to be like," he said. "Wagner, Smoltz and Rivera. Those three guys are incredible. They're business-like on the mound. They're not flashy, but they're as dominant as any closer can be. And they expect to have success, but they don't jump around and do back flips every time they save a game."

    Lidge also understands something just as important about what it will take to be thought of the way Wagner, Smoltz and Rivera are thought of: He can emulate their demeanor. He can aspire to their kinds of numbers. But, he says, "you can't compare yourself to guys who have had careers like that until you've had a career."

    So now, Lidge knows, it's time to walk their walk -- for a lot of years.

    He had himself an amazing season. Then he had himself a neon-light postseason. But now comes the hard part: Doing it again -- only better. As if that's even possible.

    It would be hard to be better than 157 strikeouts in 94 2/3 innings. But Lidge says it isn't about strikeouts or stats, anyway.

    "Your teammates don't care about that," he said. "What they care about is if you're not getting the job done."

    Well, by that standard, it would be just as tough to be better than 28 saves in 30 tries -- which is what he gave his teammates after the Astros traded Dotel. But Lidge says, bluntly: "I want to improve on that."

    Hold on. Improve on two blown saves in 30 chances?

    "Well," he chuckles, "that's two. Look at what Eric Gagne did. He blew none. He's achieved perfection. So that's what you should aspire to -- perfection."

    But what Lidge really aspires to is another chance to live in that October moment -- except he'd like the next one to turn out just a little different.

    "I know that when you win, as the closer, you're the last guy standing out there," he said. "So sometimes people ask, 'Would you ever want to be a starter again?' And what I say is, 'After last year? After last October? No way.' "

    Which, by coincidence, is exactly what all those hitters said about facing him.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com