Perfect thing

Jeff Passan

Before this season, the fresh start he so needed, Brad Lidge promised himself something. He would stop listening. He spent too much time heeding others' advice and criticisms and suggestions that something was wrong with him.

For three years, such sentiment had lingered like a dull cough. People thought he was soft, as if that playoff home run Albert Pujols hit Oct. 17, 2005 – one struck with the kind of ferocity that turns apocryphal with time – had rendered Lidge incompetent. Poppycock, of course, but the tsunami of perception is powerful indeed.

"I don't want my career to be defined by one pitch," Lidge says.

So he went out and had a perfect year. Lidge saved 41 games in 41 tries, and with three saves to end last year, his streak of 44 in a row is the third longest in baseball history. For it to happen with the Philadelphia Phillies is, too, a stroke of fortuity, and not just because they're in their first National League Championship Series since 1993, hosting Game 1 against Los Angeles on Thursday.

It's also the team of the man who truly does know what it's like to have his career defined by one pitch.

"I had a decent career," Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams says over his cell phone from suburban Philadelphia. "I'm not ashamed of it. But that one pitch. That's why they know me. To this day, someone still yells every day, 'Joe Carter!'

"If I'd have gotten Joe Carter out, no one would have talked about Mitch Williams again, period."

The scene has lost none of its verve through the years, playing out still with grandiloquence. World Series, 1993. Game 6. Ninth inning. One out. Phillies up 6-5, looking to tie the series against Toronto. Runners on first and second. Two balls, two strikes. Williams leaves a fastball over the plate. Carter extends his arms, first to connect with the ball, then toward the heavens to celebrate the second season-ending home run in baseball history.

"And that," Williams says, "is my career."

The Pujols home run wasn't as epic because it came in the 2005 NLCS and Houston beat St. Louis the next game to advance to the World Series. Lidge struggles for the next year and a half owed more, he said, to bad mechanics than a nuked psyche.

"No one listened," Lidge says. "And that's fine. People are entitled to their opinion. It was just wrong. No matter how many times I said that it was just one at-bat, just one pitch, everything came back to it. It was not true."

For the fundamentalists who believed otherwise – who pegged Lidge a head case – the idea of him going to Philadelphia was laughable. The city that booed Santa Claus and cheered the potential paralysis of Michael Irvin and launched batteries at J.D. Drew would eat Lidge alive, a bloodthirsty Audrey II to his Seymour.

"They're demanding," he says. "And I like that. This job necessitates someone who can take it. I'm just glad I haven't given them too much reason to boo me.

"This has been the perfect situation. I'm comfortable with who I am, with how I'm pitching, with everything. I feel like I'm back where I was. Maybe even better. It's been liberating."

The 31-year-old Lidge carried a 0.00 earned-run average into the middle of May, his slider – the same pitch Pujols hit out – the biggest reason for his success. Lidge varies the pitch, sometimes spinning a slow one for a strike, others burying a hard one for a strikeout. Hitters swung and missed at 50 percent of the sliders Lidge threw this season, the highest number for a single pitch in baseball this season.

By the end of the season, Lidge had struck out 92 in 69 2/3 innings, posted a 1.95 ERA and surrendered two home runs. A few times he teetered near a blown save, most notably June 6, when outfielder Shane Victorino threw out Atlanta's Gregor Blanco at the plate to preserve Lidge's streak.

Already he has won Comeback Player of the Year, and it's nice, the recognition and appreciation after wondering whether others' talk of him was some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Lidge is embracing this perfection thing, he says, because he's certainly not perfect in any other respect.

Nor, actually, is Williams. Fundamentally the two couldn't be much more different. Lidge throws right-handed, Williams left. Lidge is a clean-cut boy from the suburbs, Williams a rancher at heart. Lidge is mild, Williams … well, you know.

The two have a kinship, though, one borne of closing, and doing so in Philadelphia, and knowing that the pit in your stomach from one pitch won't fester and grow so long as you don't allow it.

"I said last year on TV that I hope the Phillies do get Brad Lidge," Williams says. "You just don't find guys with his arm and his stuff hanging on trees. He can flat-out pitch. Just because someone's down on him in one city doesn't mean anything. I wore my welcome out in lots of cities."

Unlike Bill Buckner, holed up in Idaho, and so many other goats, Williams shrugged off the backlash and stayed in Philadelphia. He spent his time coaching baseball and perfecting the recipe for his Wild Thing Southpaw Salsa. He does radio and TV gigs almost daily.

Before Game 1 of the NL Division Series, the Phillies asked Williams to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. As the public-address system blared his name, the crowd at Citizens Bank Park erupted. Fifteen years was a long time. It didn't take the pitch to Carter away. It did soothe whatever pain loiters.

Williams wound up and threw his pitch. Catcher Lou Marson didn't bother jumping. The ball soared 20 feet above his head. Fans went crazy. Philadelphia had forgiven Williams long ago. There they would remember him as the guy who gave up the home run to Carter – and as Wild Thing, the craziest sumbitch around.

It's a lesson, Williams says, that Lidge will learn soon enough. Innate in baseball is a natural healing process, one that leads to redemption. Lidge is on his way, one perfect season at a time.