Commentary

Lidge turns back the clock in Game 3

Phillies closer, after awful regular season, goes into postseason mode and gets save

Originally Published: October 11, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DENVER -- He came trotting out of the bullpen at 2:02 a.m. ET, or Philadelphia Daylight Nail Chewing Time.

A year ago, this was his time. His place. His mountaintop.

But as Brad Lidge has been finding out for six agonizing months now, it isn't last year anymore.

It was the bottom of the ninth inning on a frigid Denver evening in October. The Phillies had just ground out a gigantic run in the top of the ninth to take a 6-5 lead on the Rockies in Sunday's pivotal third game of their National League Division Series.

There were three outs to go. And it was Brad Lidge's job to get them.

For the past five weeks, it hasn't always worked out that way. But this time, there was no other direction for Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to go. He'd used Ryan Madson. He'd started J.A. Happ. He didn't think Brett Myers was physically ready for this particular assignment yet.

So this was it. The manager was going to have to hand Brad Lidge the baseball. And not much was riding on it. Just his team's entire season. That's all.

Twelve heart-thumping minutes, five hitters and 20 pitches later, it would all work out fine. Troy Tulowitzki's two-out fly ball settled into the glove of left fielder Ben Francisco. And the Phillies had taken a 2-1 lead in the only division series left standing.

But on this bone-rattling night, or morning, or whatever the heck it was, this seemed like more than just another October victory.

It seemed like redemption.

[+] EnlargeBrad Lidge
Byron Hetzler/US PresswireBrad Lidge looked quite comfortable back on the postseason stage, picking up a big save in Game 3 against the Rockies.

"I know what I'm capable of," Lidge said confidently, after a 4-hour, 6-minute game that will go down in history as the longest nine-inning National League postseason game -- NLDS or NLCS -- ever played. "I knew when the postseason came around, I could get out there and do my job."

But if he knew -- if he really knew -- he might have been pretty close to the only one who did. He was, after all, only a week removed from the end of the worst season of his life -- and practically the worst season of any closer's life.

His 11 blown saves were the most by any NL closer since 1998. His 7.21 ERA was the highest of any reliever in history who got to pitch as many innings (58 2/3) as he did.

And as he took the mound on this fateful evening, he hadn't saved a game in 21 days. He hadn't saved a one-run game since Sept. 3. He hadn't even been handed a save opportunity since Sept. 23. That was 2½ weeks ago.

But this game had spun in so many crazy directions over four incomprehensible hours, there was no alternative. His wait was over. His time to prove this was a whole new season had arrived.

He started tossing those warm-up pitches as 50,109 frostbitten onlookers rose from their icy seats in their purple jackets, spun their October rally towels and turned Coors Field into a giant thunder-clap. Brad Lidge may be a Colorodan himself. But only his friends, relatives and teammates were pulling for him here.

So as he stood on the mound, waiting for the signal that the TV commercial break was over and it was time to pitch, Jimmy Rollins looked him right in the eyeballs and said, "You're going to get them out."

"Yeah," Lidge replied.

"What's that mean?" Rollins retorted.

And for a moment, Lidge seemed startled by the challenge. Then he looked Rollins back in his own eyeballs and told him: "You're right. We're going to get this done right here, right now."

And then -- whaddayaknow -- he did exactly that.

It wasn't exactly 1-2-3. It wasn't exactly domination. But it wasn't every Philadelphian's worst nightmare, either. It wasn't Mitch Williams/Joe Carter reincarnate. And that, for this team, was all that mattered.

Lidge retired Brad Hawpe for one quick out. But then October's fastest-rising star, Rockies leadoff man Carlos Gonzalez (8-for-13 in this series), worked an eight-pitch walk and did what runners have been doing to Lidge automatically all year: He swiped second. Easily.

Just one pitch after that steal, though, Lidge unfurled a pitch he hadn't thrown in a game THIS ENTIRE SEASON -- a 1-and-1 cutter to pinch hitter Jason Giambi. And a startled Giambi popped it up to third base for out No. 2.

"It's not that I haven't thrown it ever," Lidge would say of that pitch later. "I've thrown it in the bullpen for years. And I used to throw it [in games] in Houston. Just back then, I didn't really know what I was doing with it, or even why I was throwing it. So I just kind of pocketed it for a long time."

But after a season in which left-handers hit .319 and slugged .500 against him, he was looking for another wrinkle. And out it came -- on the most important night of his whole season.

He would throw a couple more during a five-pitch walk to Todd Helton, thinking Helton might chase them. But when Helton walked, even though that put the go-ahead run on base, "it didn't really bother me," Lidge said.

And that was because Helton is a .364 hitter lifetime off him. But the fellow on deck, Tulowitzki, was 0-for-3, with two whiffs. And as dangerous, as clutch, as Tulowitzki may be, Lidge preferred the duel with a right-handed hitter at a moment like this.

Tulowitzki took a fastball for ball one, then stepped out to blow on his rapidly numbing hands. The P.A. system was pumping. Those "Tu-lo" chants were blaring. The rally towels were spinning. Not one fan in this ballpark was still sitting.

Lidge climbed back on the mound. Tulowitzki tapped home plate with his bat. Lidge rocked, fired one last fastball, thigh-high and in, then looked up to see Tulowitzki loft it to left for an out that seemed to end more than merely one baseball game.

Lidge watched it all the way into the glove, pirouetted and pumped his fist. Then he high-fived his catcher, Carlos Ruiz. And the look on every face around him told you this was a moment all of them needed -- not just the closer who had remembered how to close.

"That was huge," said Madson, the man who has clearly supplanted Lidge as Manuel's Most Trusted Reliever. "That's three major outs right there. It wasn't 1-2-3. But he got it done."

Now, how this game ever arrived at this wild spot -- that's a whole 'nother tale.

These teams had been swapping leads all night. The Phillies scoring, the Rockies answering. The Rockies scoring, the Phillies answering. And finally, they arrived in the bottom of the seventh with the Phillies leading 5-4 -- three hours into a night that would go down in history as the coldest postseason game ever played (35 degrees at game time, 25 by the ninth).

Then Gonzalez smoked his third hit of the night -- a leadoff double up the alley in left-center. And Dexter Fowler dropped a bunt that was only supposed to move him over, not create major havoc.

But Phillies reliever Scott Eyre went to field it, planted his ankle funny and crumpled to the grass like a wet rally towel (with what was described later as a "mild ankle sprain"). And once Eyre had finished crumpling, not only was it now first and third, nobody out, but the Phillies didn't have a pitcher.

So for the second straight game, pitching coach Rich Dubee began doing his pantomime charades act, trying to figure out how to signal the bullpen for the reliever he and Manuel wanted. Right-hander Chad Durbin was warming up. But he wasn't the guy. So Dubee eventually raised his hand as high above his head as he could -- to signal The Tall One.

That, it turned out, was Madson. But since he hadn't thrown a pitch out there all night, that was news to him.

"I was just sitting back, watching Durbin warm up, and [Brett] Myers said, 'Madson, you're in,'" Madson reported later. "And I said, 'Good one. You're joking, right?' "

Nope. This was no joke. So in he came, with nobody out in the seventh inning and the game on the line. And no warm-up tosses under his belt in three days.

"Hey, I was ready," Madson said. "Mentally, I was into the game. I was mentally ready from the fifth inning on. It wasn't like I was playing hopscotch out there."

Because of the injury, Madson got plenty of time to heat up. Then, amazingly, right out of the chute, he threw Helton two fastballs at 94 miles an hour, another at 95 and a fourth at 96 -- and struck him out.

Four pitches later, a Tulowitzki sacrifice fly tied the score. But that was all the Rockies got. And Manuel had made a major managerial statement: He'd used his best bullpen arm even though there were nine outs to go -- because he felt this was the most important inning of the game.

But because he played this the way he played it, it meant the ninth was going to belong to Brad Lidge -- if the Phillies ever regained the lead.

And in the top of the ninth, they did exactly that. It started, as it's supposed to on the Phillies' drawing board, with Rollins. He was only 2-for-13 in this series, with no runs scored, as he headed for the plate to lead off the ninth. But he worked the count full off Rockies closer Huston Street, stroked a single up the middle and got this inning rolling.

[+] EnlargeUmpire
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNo, this umpire isn't hiding. He's cold, like most everyone else was at Coors Field on Sunday night.

Shane Victorino bunted Rollins to second. And then came the most controversial play of the night.

Chase Utley tapped a squibber in front of the plate that clearly seemed to hit his leg, which should have made this a foul ball. But plate ump Jerry Meals admitted later he never saw that.

Then Utley was called safe at first by ump Ron Kulpa, even though the throw from Street appeared to beat him. But Kulpa ruled Helton came off the bag, even though that call looked dubious, too. So what the heck just happened?

Helton: "The ball definitely hit him. And even with that, we got him out."

Utley: "The ball might have clipped my leg. But I don't know. I didn't feel it. It was cold out there. My body was numb."

Meals (to pool reporter Pat Graham, of the Associated Press): "I never heard it, never saw it. … Chase Utley took off like it was nothing. He gave no indication to us that it hit him."

After looking at replays after the game, Meals conceded he missed the call. But it was too late to save the Rockies by then. And since there was one out instead of two, Ryan Howard's long fly ball to left-center field allowed Rollins to tag and score the winning run.

And once that run crossed home plate, well, it set the stage for a special night in the life of Brad Lidge.

He'd blown nine of the 15 one-run save opportunities he was handed this season -- by far the worst record in those spots of any closer in baseball. He hadn't saved a postseason game since Oct. 29, 2008 -- the night he punched out Eric Hinske, dropped to both knees and finished his perfect, enchanted season.

But a week and a half ago, Manuel sent Lidge to the mound to get the final out in the blowout game in which the Phillies clinched first place. And when that happened, Lidge said Sunday night, it reminded him of something he'd almost forgotten.

"No matter what happens from here on out," Lidge said, "I know that I can strike the last guy out to win the World Series. And there should never be a time where I forget that."

So on Sunday, he stalked out and saved a game that puts his team in position to win another one -- or at least this series, anyway. Since 1995, 21 teams have won Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five NLDS. Seventeen of those 21 have gone on to win the series, including the last eight in a row.

But Brad Lidge's save did more than merely boost the odds of his team repeating. It reminded everybody that the man who got the final out of the last World Series is still alive and well -- and more motivated than ever to do it all again.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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