Lidge has helped Phillies step up

“What
do you wanna do?” Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz posed that question
to pitcher Brad Lidge, when they were one strike away from winning the World
Series in 2008.

The
Tampa Bay Rays had a runner at second base. At the plate, pinch hitter Eric
Hinske waited. In the stands, 45,000 people screamed and waved their rally
towels frantically, nearly bursting with the almost unbearable hope that this
could be the moment when three decades of failure would be laid to rest.

Lidge
told Ruiz he was going to go with his best pitch – a slider that starts over
the plate and dives off the inside corner, into the left-handed hitter. Lidge
visualised making the pitch, and then he delivered it. ‘It’ being the pitch,
the strikeout, and the Phillies’ first World Series win for a generation.

It
had been a year of change for Lidge, who was traded to the Phillies in the
off-season, going from a rebuilding Houston Astros team to the Phillies who had
made the post-season the previous year and were looking for the one or two
pieces that could put them over the top. Lidge had been to the World Series
with Houston in 2005, only to end up on the wrong side of a beating by the
Chicago White Sox. Coming to Philadelphia he was joining a successful and
apparently close-knit squad that seemed to enjoy playing together, having what
many termed good ‘chemistry’.

Much
is said and written about team ‘chemistry’, though little of that seems to come
from the players themselves. When I asked Lidge about the impact of chemistry
on a team, he said, “When a team is winning, people will say they have great
chemistry; when they are losing, people say they have bad chemistry, even if
it’s not true”. He then paused before adding that one of the good things about
this Phillies team is that “we hold each other accountable”. Perhaps then it is
less about everyone being good buddies, and more about everyone buying into a
team-first ethic.

Lidge
went 48 for 48 in save opportunities in 2008 – his first season with the
Phillies, having arguably the best season in history for a relief pitcher, culminating
as it did in the World Series win. However, the effects of off-season surgery
on his right knee lingered into and through the following 2009 season, which
led to him blowing a league-high 11 of 42 save opportunities as he was unable
to properly push off his right leg. “It became a difficult year”, Lidge said,
“it was a struggle trying to change things to keep myself on the field”.

Changing
how you throw is usually a recipe for disaster for a pitcher, as the mechanics
of pitching motions are so finely tuned as to leave only a tiny margin for
error. For Lidge, it can make the difference between one of his sliders diving
off the plate so hard it is borderline unhittable, and having it hang over the
strike zone with a ‘hit me’ sign on it. Last year was the year of the hanging
slider – nothing seemed to go right.

“There
are two ways of dealing with it you can say, ‘I need to go on the DL (Disabled
List)’”, or ‘I can try and help my team’”, giving voice to the old-school
mentality shared by a number of his colleagues. Phillies’ second baseman Chase
Utley recently said: “An injury is something that keeps you off the field.” He
meant he refuses to acknowledge pain – however acute – as an injury if he is
still physically capable of playing.

The
Phillies still made it to the World Series last season, only to come up short
as Alex Rodriguez, one of the most gifted people ever to swing a baseball bat,
finally broke out of his post-season slump to lead the Yankees to victory in
six games. When I asked Lidge who was the best hitter he’s ever faced, it was
A-Rod’s name that came up first. “When I’ve pitched to him I’ve made mistakes.
He gets you out of your game plan.”

It
takes the most severe pressure to bring the adrenaline-fuelled best out of
sportsmen such as Lidge, and the role of a closer has a uniquely nerve-jangling
quality to it. The destiny of a team rests, 40-50 times a year, on the shoulders
of one man’s ability to get three outs in the ninth inning. Thriving on that environment,
Lidge, like many other closers, tends to pitch less effectively when he is not
in a save situation, and acknowledged that: “Your body is able to do things a
little better when the adrenaline
is pumping”.

If
the performance itself needs your body to be tricked into thinking you are in a
life-threatening situation, the other side of the coin is that long-term
success as a closer requires the opposite response whenever you are not on the
mound. It requires a phlegmatism that contradicts everything you have to tell
yourself to succeed in the moment.

This
is where Lidge says that his faith in God enables him, in the down times, to be
reminded that baseball “is just a game – there are more important things”. It
is that ability to “put baseball in perspective” which helps keep him on an
even keel. Any closer needs that, and Lidge has needed it more than most going
through seasons of such contrasting fortunes as he has in the last few years.

Perspective
– and a wicked slider – has kept Brad Lidge at the top of his profession for
six years.

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