A Perfect Ending for Phillies -- and Lidge
Friday, October 31, 2008; Page E07
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 30 -- High up in his suite at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night, with his Philadelphia Phillies two outs from the World Series title but the tying run on second base and a closer on the mound who, while technically perfect this season, is no stranger to catastrophic endings, Pat Gillick gave in to a most fatalistic, most Philadelphian of thoughts: "Maybe the law of averages has finally caught up to us."
There was much riding on the next few tension-filled pitches from Brad Lidge's powerful right arm. Gillick's Phillies were closing in on their first World Series title in 28 years, only their second championship in 126 seasons. The city's sports fans were tantalizingly close to snapping a title drought among four pro teams that spanned 100 combined seasons. And Lidge himself, who had not blown a save all year, still had a few demons -- well, really just one -- left to slay.
A line-drive out to right and a strikeout later, the Phillies were champions of Major League Baseball, by a 4-3 score over the Tampa Bay Rays in a rain-suspended Game 5, and Lidge had given the world a lasting image of himself -- victorious, on his knees, arms in the air, bracing for the wave of teammates' bodies about to slam into him. The image replaced the previous, decidedly less enjoyable one.
It was three years and 12 days previous that Lidge, then with the Houston Astros, gave up a monumental, titanic home run to St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series. When Lidge followed that with the two worst seasons, statistically speaking, of his career -- losing his closer's job in the process -- it was easy to draw the conclusion that he had never recovered from the trauma of the Pujols homer.
"I don't care about that other crap," Lidge said after Wednesday's game. "This is it right here. . . . It's totally redeeming, but honestly, it was never about that. This was about winning for these guys and these fans and this city."
"That's behind him now," Phillies left-hander Jamie Moyer said amid the jubilation on the field. "We can all put that away and talk about the good that he's done. He had a perfect season. There's no need to dwell on the past."
Gillick, the Phillies' general manager, believed in Lidge enough to make him the centerpiece of his offseason 11 months ago. Figuring he could not afford the top-flight starting pitcher the Phillies needed, Gillick instead shifted starter-turned-closer Brett Myers back to the rotation and traded three players to the Astros for Lidge and utility man Eric Bruntlett (who wound up scoring the winning run Wednesday night as a pinch runner).
"You have to have a lot of luck along the way, and you have to make some good decisions. We pick up Brad Lidge, and he does what he does this year," Gillick said. "We wouldn't be here without Brad Lidge. He was so important for us because . . . our bullpen needed help."
Despite converting all 41 of his saves during the regular season, Lidge was still better known for giving it up in the big moments. In addition to the Pujols homer, there was this year's All-Star Game, when, in the 15th inning, Lidge gave up the winning run on a sacrifice fly. While it gave the AL home-field advantage in the World Series, as it turns out that merely allowed the Phillies to clinch the championship at home.
"It had to be won here," Lidge said. "These fans deserve for it to be won here."
Lidge, who signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract extension this year, is arguably the only extravagance on a roster otherwise constructed primarily from homegrown stars (including Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard and series most valuable player Cole Hamels) and inexpensive cast-offs from other teams (Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Joe Blanton, Matt Stairs and others).
"Under Pat, we've really focused on doing things through player development and scouting," Phillies President David Montgomery said. "So many of these guys are products of our system. We took the core that was in place . . . and added to it. Sometimes the smallest moves are the biggest ones -- like Matt Stairs and Joe Blanton."
But the Lidge move -- which appears to have cost the Phillies no players of any real significance -- remains the crowning achievement for Gillick, who has said privately he intends to retire this winter.
In addition to what Lidge brings the Phillies every time they have a slim ninth-inning lead, he has brought a much-needed dose of stand-up professionalism and accountability to a clubhouse that otherwise tends toward surliness and invisibility. Lidge, 31, is a prince of a man who stood and answered every question from every reporter after the Pujols homer and in the often difficult months that followed.
"I don't know how he did it," said Tampa Bay reliever Dan Wheeler, Lidge's former teammate in Houston. "It was a constant battle."
That battle now appears to be over, and Lidge has prevailed. All those ninth innings this year were not always tidy, not always easy. But every last one of his 48 opportunities, between the start of April and the end of October, went into the books as a win for the Phillies, a save for Lidge and another degree of darkness to the slow fadeout of the awful memory of an October past.