Lidge looking to regain mojo

Originally Published: April 19, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Brad Lidge isn't going to be a Devil Ray any time soon. Or an Indian, a Phillie, a Rockie or a Nippon Ham Fighter, either.

Sorry to report that. It's really not a helpful fact for those of us who have notes columns to write and trade rumors to disseminate. But facts often have a pesky knack for getting in the way of those trade rumors. And this would be another one of those times.

Brad Lidge
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesIt wasn't so long ago that Brad Lidge was considered one of the top closers in the game.
"An asset like that," Astros GM Tim Purpura told Rumblings, "you just don't move without an extreme reason. And we don't have an extreme reason right now."

Just because the Astros don't have an extreme reason doesn't mean they don't have any reason, however. So the baseball buzzards have been hovering ever since the Astros decided, a week into the season, that Lidge wasn't their closer anymore.

"Oh, I don't fault any general manager for making the call," Purpura said, "because that's our job. You have to do your due diligence. You don't want to be the guy who wakes up one morning and says, 'Oh no, they traded so-and-so, and I never called to ask.' So I don't blame anybody for doing that. But to expect that, just because we've done this, we want to move him -- [that] would be shortsighted on our part."

An official of one team that checked in confirms that his club was told the Astros have no interest in trading Lidge, barring an offer they'd be nuts to refuse. So that ought to clear up any confusion about the Astros' state of mind.

The bigger question, though, is Lidge's state of mind.

You might be shocked to learn it's better than you think.

In a 10-minute conversation the other day, Lidge didn't use the word "angry." Not once. He used the word "frustrated" a few times. But if he wasn't frustrated right now, he wouldn't be breathing.

"I'm a little bit frustrated," he said, "just because it happened so fast."

Well, it sure couldn't have happened much faster.

There was a blown save on Opening Day, on a Xavier Nady home run. Then five days of sitting around. Then a messy appearance (2/3 IP, 5 runs, 2 earned) as a mop-up man in a 10-1 loss, a game in which everybody agrees he was just supposed to get his work in.

And then boom, he'd lost his job. Yeah, his ERA after those two outings was 16.20. But the more pressing reason this move was made was another number: 1-5. Which happened to be the Astros' record a week into the season.

"So, obviously," Lidge said, "people wanted answers, and they wanted somebody to do something, and that's what happened."

In fact, even the man who made this decision, manager Phil Garner, admits that's exactly what happened. He'd watched two outings in which his closer clearly "didn't have his scheme down." But he also had watched his team play six games that already had shoved its whole season to the edge of the cliff.

"So here's what I'm faced with," Garner said. "I've got a club that can't afford to lose another game. And now I've got a guy who I think needs a lot of pitching time to get his scheme down, to where he's back and he throws the ball and he says, 'This is where I'm going to get an out, and the game's over.' And he'll show me when that's happening. And he'll get his job back. But I don't have the margin for error right now."

So Garner did what he thought he had to do. Then he called Lidge in and explained why he was doing it. And he told Lidge he'd get his closer job back as soon as he got his "scheme," and his mojo, back.

Lidge listened to all that. And he's tough enough, mature enough and a good enough teammate to say: "He's my manager, and I'm going to do whatever he wants me to do. And I won't argue, at all."

But he still doesn't quite understand. Yes, this happened last year, too. But this year was different. It was September when he lost his job last season, and he had an ERA over 5.00 and six blown saves. This year, he was two outings into the season. Two.

"Last year, I was going through some struggles, so I understood why he was doing it," Lidge said. "But this year, after two games, you can't really say that I was going through struggles because there wasn't enough of a sample of time, really."

Is he right about that? Absolutely. Was this something any player would feel was just? Probably not. But if you look at the big picture, it's obvious Lidge is a different animal now than he was in 2004 and 2005. And that's the genesis of all of this.

Lidge by the numbers
Yr. ERA H/9 K/9 K/BB
'04-'05 2.07 6.3 14.5 4.9
'06-'07 5.38 8.8 12.13 2.6

We've had three scouts tell us, in the past week, that "his stuff is still there." But that aura he had two years ago? That's not still there. The ability he once had to get hitters to chase his man-eating slider? That's not still there. The mechanics that used to make all that possible? They haven't always been there, either.

So last year, when he lost the feel for that slider and for his delivery, Lidge made some changes he wishes now that he'd never made. He tried abandoning the windup and going solely from the stretch. He tried fiddling with new pitches. But he realizes now that all that experimenting "was just ridiculous."

"I'm better off," he said, "if I just rear back and throw my good fastball and my hard slider. That's really all I need to do. Unfortunately, I tried to do too many other things, and it didn't work."

In all that analysis of what "went wrong," you might notice something. The one thing the rest of the world is convinced "went wrong" with Lidge -- Albert Pujols' stunning October home run -- isn't in there. Because that theory is just about total myth.

"I understand why people say it," Lidge said, "because last year didn't go well. So I understand how people think that. And to be honest, I can't say a dang thing about it until I start pitching better.

"But the truth is, I think there are a variety of other things that got in the way. And the thing people don't understand is that I face Albert like eight times a year. It's not like I always wonder what it's going to be like to face him again. I face him all the time."

And the last time he faced him, he got him out, by the way. So Pujols is no longer relevant to this discussion. The only thing relevant anymore is whether the Astros' current strategy -- getting Lidge extended work in less pressurized situations -- and Lidge's current strategy -- going back to the fastball/slider combo that was once so unhittable -- will get him back. Not just to the closer's job but to what he used to be.

He hears the theories that it will be impossible for him to do that as long as he stays in Houston. He hears people speculate that he actually wants out. But there's no evidence at the moment that he would prefer a new area code or that the Astros would love to give him one. That could change. But it's official April reality.

"This is my team right now -- the Houston Astros -- and I'm not going to sit here and wonder about anything else," Lidge said. "I've been here my whole career since I got drafted. And my bottom line is, I want to be on this team when we're winning games and playing well, and that's it. I'm not going to dwell on, or even think about, anything else."

So those buzzards might keep hovering, but "We're not looking to trade Brad Lidge," Garner said. "This is not a case where we think this guy is done or anything like that. And he's not out of favor. None of those things apply here. To me, this was just the right thing to do for our ballclub at this moment. And if we can get him more consistent work and it helps him and it helps our club, then we're on the right track."

And all those Lidge trade rumors you might have heard? That would mean they're on the wrong track. Well, for now, anyway.


Blackout syndrome

Whatever it took to keep MLB's Extra Innings package on cable, we're grateful. But we're starting to hear those annual complaints from customers who can't watch what they thought they had signed up for, even after shelling out their $179, thanks to MLB's often-puzzling blackout regulations. Well, for the first time, there's hope.

Triviality
In Jackie Robinson's MVP season of 1949, he drove in 124 runs, stole 37 bases and got 203 hits. Only one active player has had a season in which he matched or beat all three of those numbers in the same year. Can you name him? (Answer later.)

We're hearing that a discussion of those blackout rules is on the agenda for next month's owners meeting. And indications are that it's Bud Selig's intention to fix this mess ASAP. We've also heard that teams have been asked to submit info to MLB specifically outlining all the distant locations in their "territory" where they're actually on some form of local TV. MLB then intends to crack down on clubs that are claiming certain areas as their turf if, in reality, those claims actually are preventing fans of that team from seeing games even if they're willing to pay for Extra Innings.

It's one thing for clubs to protect their right to cut local TV deals. But it's a big problem for the industry if the effect is, essentially, to tell fans: "You can't be a fan of this team anymore." Nevertheless, it isn't as simple as it sounds. So stay tuned.

Hot seat

This won't put out the Charlie Manuel inferno in Philadelphia. But there continues to be no sign that Manuel is in any short-term danger of getting canned. On the other hand, one of GM Pat Gillick's biggest priorities the past year was to remake the chemistry of his club (a major reason for the exit of Bobby Abreu, among others). So if this team doesn't show some sign of recapturing the personality it displayed down the stretch last year, there wouldn't seem to be any other way to rework the chemistry except changing managers. Would there?

Where's the bender?

Tom Gordon
Gordon
The Phillies' ugly start has camouflaged a potentially major issue if they ever do right the ship -- closer Flash Gordon. He's supposed to be the one known quantity in a suspect bullpen. But his lack of spring activity raised red flags. And Saturday, in a shaky save against Houston, he didn't throw his signature power curveball once in 19 pitches (only seven of them strikes).

"There's something going on," one scout says. "He's not going to be the strikeout pitcher he was if he doesn't have that curveball. He's turned into a fastball-cutter guy."

Hey, says one NL manager, blame it on the Yankees. "You should never get any good reliever after he's been with the Yankees," the manager says, "because they're ahead every night. So all their good relievers get worn down."

The natural

As sensational as Josh Hamilton has looked in Cincinnati, don't expect him to turn into a seven-day-a-week regular quite yet. "We can't lose sight of the fact that he hadn't played for so long," GM Wayne Krivsky says. "Just going through the six-month season will be an adjustment for him, just playing and showing up and going through the grind."

So for now, the Reds still plan to pick and choose the pitchers Hamilton is most likely to have success against. But as good as he has looked, the Reds figure to be a lot less picky than they thought they'd be.

Run, don't walk

Meanwhile, Krivsky has done nothing but support manager Jerry Narron's quick benching of third baseman Edwin Encarnacion last week for not running out a popup. In retrospect, the brass concluded Encarnacion simply lost track of the ball off the bat. But he still should have run. And if Narron wants to take future stands in the name of hustle, Krivsky agrees: "He knows I feel the same way. And he knows ownership wants the game played that way. He knows he has plenty of support here, and it starts from the top."

Cold spell

Just when we'd decided it made no sense for baseball to try to schedule opening week around the weather, an assistant professor from Western Kentucky checked in to make us think otherwise. Greg Goodrich did a study on the historical frequency of lousy April baseball weather in six cold-weather cities. And he recommends that if baseball could avoid scheduling any homestands in those cities before April 10, it would reduce the chances of running into snow and sub-40 temperatures by (ready?) 80 percent. Yeah, 80. For instance, he says, the chances of a game in Detroit or Cleveland getting "weathered" out before April 10 is about once every two years. Afterward? It balloons to once every 10 to 20 years. Pretty impressive. You can read his whole study here. Now if he could just scrape that sleet off our windshield.

Long live the king

If it turns out that Felix Hernandez has a serious elbow injury, it's not just a blow for him and the Mariners. It's a blow for the whole sport -- because this guy has a chance to reach a special level of greatness. Sheez, when he's on, the outfielders could spend the night playing Sudoku. As Rob Neyer observed last week, in Hernandez's first two starts, his outfielders recorded exactly three putouts, out of 51 outs. And only one of the four hits King Felix allowed got airborne.

So "the thing that makes him unique," says Mariners special assistant Dan Evans, "is that he'll strike you out or he'll ground you out. And there are very, very few guys with that repertoire. He can really command the lower part of the strike zone. And you just don't see that much, especially at his age."

Well, he's got that right. No pitcher in this decade has averaged twice as many groundball outs as flyball outs while striking out a hitter per inning. But Hernandez, through two starts, had 18 K's in 17 innings and a 7.5 ground-to-air ratio. Amazing.

Mound of troubles

When B.J. Ryan landed on the Blue Jays' disabled list and Jason Jennings did the same in Houston, it came as no surprise to scouts who had seen them pitch lately. Ryan looked so stiff and uncomfortable in his last outing, "he looked like a weightlifter trying to pitch," one scout says. And another scout says of Jennings: "Three years ago, he was 90-93. But this spring, and at the beginning of the year, his stuff was soft and he was throwing 80 percent cutters. He had a totally different style."

Toronto hope

The Blue Jays' loss of Reed Johnson, who led all AL leadoff men in on-base percentage last year, could be more damaging than people think. But one NL executive says: "If they replace him with Adam Lind (as they did), they might even be better. I think that kid is going to be a hell of a player."

Thanks, but no thanks

Why did the Phillies move Brett Myers to the bullpen and Jon Lieber back to the rotation? In part because Lieber actually was hurting his trade value as a reliever and because they need him to rediscover his heavy sinker. "I haven't seen the heavy sink," one AL executive says. "His stuff is light. My review would be: not interested."

The Diceman cometh

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Matsuzaka
Here's the Daisuke Matsuzaka scouting report of the week: "I've been thinking: How could anyone write an advance scouting report on that guy?" one scouting director wonders. "He doesn't have any kind of sequence or pattern at all."

Remember me?

Before this month, Tim Hudson hadn't ripped off a streak of three straight starts of one earned run or none in seven innings or more in five years. But scouts who have seen him since spring training say he isn't just hot. He's back.

"This is all about fastball movement and his split[ter]," one scout says. "You can see he's confident in his split again, and he's using it. He's much more aggressive now that he's got the split back. And his fastball movement is really good. He knows he can reach back and get more velocity when he needs it. The way he's throwing, that team has one of the best one-two punches in baseball, with him and [John] Smoltz."

Big Fish

Trivia answer
Alex Rodriguez in 1998 (213 hits, 124 RBIs, 46 steals)
Some of the Marlins' young players have shown signs of regressing this spring. But not Miguel Cabrera. "Why anybody pitches to him is beyond me," one scout says. "In an RBI spot, he's like Edgar Martinez. He keeps his hands inside the ball, and he can drive the ball up the alleys, he can hit a home run, and realistically, he can use his hands and hit the ball hard to any part of the park."

Space cowboy

All players get their share of e-mails from spacey fans -- but Craig Biggio can top every one of them. He actually got an e-mail from the International Space Station this month. The author of that e-mail was noted Astros fan (and astronaut) Michael Lopez-Alegria, who has been orbiting, via a really high fly, for the past seven months.

Biggio told Rumblings that Lopez-Alegria informed him that if he's interested in doing any recreational space travel after he retires, something could be arranged. "It costs $20-25 million for a ride up there," Biggio said. "But he said he heard there was a discount if you've got 3,000 hits."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com