- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- His offseason whooshed by fast. "Too fast," says Brad Lidge.
So he finds himself here. In the Houston Astros' spring training bunker. Ready to move on. Ready for that next save, that next adventure, that next October.
But the occupants of the world around him, for some reason, aren't quite so ready. They're looking at October, all right. But not the next one. The last one.
Last October, as you might recall, wasn't quite the kind of October that Lidge would have scripted for himself. We can all agree on that.
Closers dream of mob scenes on the mound and ticker-tape shampoos, not 900-foot Albert Pujols home runs that cancel World Series flights.
Not inexplicable World Series home runs that are launched by men who hit zero home runs all season. (This is where we suggest you replay that Scott Podsednik Game 2 shocker if it's still stored in the DVR in your memory bank.)
Not game-winning 36-hop singles up the middle, like the one Jermaine Dye thunked off Lidge in the final game of that World Series.
All that stuff happened with Lidge on the mound last October. He can't change that. That, he understands.
But the world's fascination with the state of his psyche -- "a morbid fascination," Lidge chuckles -- well, that, he doesn't understand.
He is stuck in a moment, and he can't get out of it. But not for long.
He talked about last October with ESPN.com the other day. And now, he says, he's done. Forever.
"After this," he said, "we're going to shut it down.
"I answered every question for a long time about the same thing," Lidge said, wearily. "Now I just want to turn the page."
Still, the world will be looking for his inner scars, because October is a month that can leave those scars. It has happened before. It will happen again.
But not to guys like this.
Dennis Eckersley saved 326 games, won a Cy Young award and even collected an MVP trophy in the post-Kirk Gibson portion of his career. So, obviously, the Eck survived his worst October nightmare, too.
That's how it works when you're The Best at what you do. You throw those pitches under the October microscope. You ride out whatever happens next. Then you go back to being what you always were -- The Best.
We'll grant you that Lidge hasn't qualified to hang out in the Eck and Mariano Suite, upstairs in the penthouse of the Bullpen Tower -- not yet, anyway. But if you don't think he's up there with The Best right now, you haven't been paying attention.
This is a man who piled up more strikeouts per nine innings last year (13.12) than any closer alive -- three more per nine innings than Billy Wagner, four more than Mariano Rivera.
But that's not all. Lidge's career strikeout rate (12.82 per 9 IP) is not just higher than the rate of any active relief pitcher. It's the highest of any pitcher in history who has thrown as many innings as he has (259).
So a fellow with his stuff won't turn into Chuck Hartenstein at age 29 just because of a few swings of the bat in October.
"This guy is one of the elite five closers in the game," said his catcher, Brad Ausmus. "He's as good as they come. You know, I've caught him and Wags [Wagner] and Trevor Hoffman. And granted, Wags and Hoffy have done it a little longer, so you can't put Brad in their category. But stuff-wise, he's as good as either one of them."
"He's too good," said another veteran voice in that Houston clubhouse, Andy Pettitte. "I've heard too many hitters say he has the best stuff they've ever seen not to believe it. When you hear Edgar Martinez say that's the best slider anybody's ever thrown him, that's saying something, man."
If you're going to make the world forget about those October baseball games that melted away, it always helps to be borderline unhittable. And you can quote us on that.
But that supersonic right arm isn't even the biggest reason Brad Lidge doesn't fit the Byung-Hyun Kim/Stan Belinda slot so many people have tried to stuff him into.
No, the biggest reason is located slightly to the north of that arm.
Up there in his head, Lidge gets it.
After that Pujols home run -- a home run that broke hearts, crushed dreams and endangered his team's entire magic-carpet ride -- Lidge didn't hide. Didn't no-comment. Didn't scowl or snap or blow off a single question.
He stood at his locker and took the blame for nearly an hour. Then he did one-on-one interviews with every Houston TV station. And two hours before the next game, he even agreed to talk on "SportsCenter." That's how distraught he was.
He repeated that act after the Podsednik gopher ball. And again after Dye's single.
If accountability is any gauge of a man's inner strength, then Lidge is a regular Magnus Samuelsson -- on the inside, anyway.
"It was hard [answering all those questions], but at the same time, I've never been one to shrug people off if something doesn't go right," Lidge said. "I can take the good with the bad. It doesn't chew me up inside. Oh, it's frustrating. Don't get me wrong. But it's not going to chew me up to the point where I can't deal with it.
"And besides," he said, "the sooner you're able to talk about it, the sooner you're able to get over it."
What a concept: The sooner you're able to talk about it, the sooner you're able to get over it. Those words should be mounted atop the locker of every closer in America.
And maybe everyone else's locker, too.
Therapy by media interrogation. What are the odds that that innovation will ever catch on?
"You know," Lidge philosophized, "I've given up home runs before. And I'll give up home runs again. That's baseball. And if you can't deal with that, you'll be pitching for about a month in the big leagues."
Anyone can talk that talk four months later, we suppose. But Lidge was walking that walk from the moment Pujols swung the bat. We know because his teammates were monitoring every stride.
"The thing that impressed me," Ausmus said, "was what he was like the next day, after the home run to Pujols. I'm a guy who has never, ever had trouble sleeping after a game. But even I had trouble sleeping that night. So the next day, I said to him, 'Hey, did you get any sleep last night?' He said, 'I slept really good.' That right there told me we don't have to worry about this kid. He can handle success. And he can handle failure."
Nobody ever volunteers to practice handling failure. But long before Lidge got to experience any good times in Houston, he found out how to handle the worst kind of bad times any player ever deals with.
His big-league career was almost over before it started. Three different times.
"And if he's not scarred by that," said GM Tim Purpura, "there's no way a few bad outings, at any level of the game, could scar him for life."
In June 1998, the Astros made Lidge their No. 1 pick out of Notre Dame, signed him in a hurry and sent him to Quad Cities of the Midwest League. He made it through the first four appearances into his pro career. Then his elbow started throbbing.
That was the beginning of Lidge's parade of pain. Between 1999 and 2001, he had knee surgery. And elbow surgery. And shoulder surgery. And somewhere in there, then-Expos prospect Ron Calloway smoked a line drive off Lidge's right arm and splattered his ulna bone, sending him to the operating room yet one more time.
"Now that [stinks]," said Lidge. "That's when it gets frustrating."
And when a guy keeps getting hurt, year after year after year, "there are times things creep into your mind," Lidge admitted. "Like, 'How many credits do I need to get my degree? Do I want to go back to school?' You don't want to think about stuff like that. But sometimes, when you're in the middle of those surgeries, you can't help but think: 'If baseball doesn't work for me, if I keep having these injuries, if it's not meant to be that I can throw a baseball, what do I do?'"
This was just five years ago. So it's not a memory Lidge has buried in a crevice in his basement. It's still fresh. Still real. Still stuck in his gut, like a bad enchilada.
So what's more challenging to deal with -- a hanging slider in October or that voice you can't snuff out, wondering if that pitching dream of yours is meant to be?
"You pitch good, and you pitch bad -- but that's just performance stuff," Lidge said. "That's not hard to deal with mentally. Not for me. If you pitch bad, you say, 'I'll just practice something else, or I'll get better doing something.' But at least you're pitching.
"What's hard mentally is dealing with injuries, because that you don't have control over. When you've got control over stuff, like how you pitch, it's just not hard. What's a strain mentally is when you don't have control over the situation. I had four surgeries in 3½ years. And that is mentally tough, because then you've got to convince yourself that it's just a phase you're going through and you're going to be healthy someday."
He told himself a zillion times that he could still pitch. He could still dominate. He could still live the dream. If he could just get healthy, it was all out there for him.
So the highlight of his career wasn't making the big leagues. Or being part of a six-pitcher no-hitter in Yankee Stadium. Or even his astonishing NLCS in October 2004, the one in which he faced 28 Cardinals, struck out 20 of them and gave up one hit.
No, his highlight was being called the workhorse of the Houston bullpen in 2003, when he went out there 78 times as a member of Wagner's set-up crew.
"That, for me, was the greatest thing in the world," he said, "because, before that, everyone had always said I was so fragile."
Living through all that pain, and all that doubt and all those trips to see his neighborhood orthopedic surgeon, was a life-altering experience. So after an experience like that, a couple of October home runs don't seem so traumatic after all.
"When you're able to get over that hurdle mentally, just pitching in a game is a reward," Lidge said. "Whether you do good or bad, you're just happy to be pitching. So then to be pitching in the postseason is an awesome experience -- no matter what happens."
Lidge subscribes to the philosophy of life that something good can always come from something bad. And that, he said, "is what people don't understand. Something like that doesn't set you back. A lot of times, it can make you better."
So Lidge is fiddling with a splitter this spring and talking about locating his fastball more consistently, all in his quest to actually get a little better.
But maybe he hasn't checked his numbers. His manager has. And Phil Garner says: "I don't know if he can be any better." Yeah, if Lidge got any better, he might never give up another hit, let alone another homer.
He will, though. He knows. We know. The hitters know. The amateur psychologists with the pens and notepads know. There will be more homers, more blown saves, more questions to answer.
And the true measure of Lidge's bounce-ability is that he can't wait.
"I know that the first game of the season, people will be talking about it," Lidge said, without having to explain what "it" was. "And I know the first game we face the Cardinals, people will be saying things. Which is fine.
"And hopefully, after that," he said, with extra accent on that word, hopefully, "we'll all find something else to talk about."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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