Personal crusade

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

In his darkest days, Brad Lidge immersed himself in ones even darker.

The blown saves sent him scurrying for books on history. Lidge fancies himself something of a buff and would love to study archaeology once his baseball career ends. During the last year, when he agonizingly morphed from the Houston Astros' dominant closer to a hittable middle reliever and then back to his impervious self, anything on the medieval Crusades piqued his interest.

It's the ability to tie nearly millennium-old goings-on into the narrative of our everyday lives – the king starting a war based on fear of Muslims – that so intrigues Lidge.

Because, in many ways, he feels like that ability to reflect and remember saved his career.

"When you can learn the history," Lidge said, "it gives you such a better background of the reason for what's going on today."

Baseball history showed this: There had never been a relief pitcher quite like Brad Lidge in 2004. Over 94 2/3 innings, he struck out 157 batters, giving him the highest strikeout rate of all time for players with at least 85 innings. Batters hit .174 against Lidge, and did so with a feeble .290 slugging percentage.

It also showed this: Two years later, Lidge was brutal. His earned-run average ballooned to 5.28. His fastball that sat at 96 mph looked like a batting-practice pitch, and his slider, the one Lidge's respected catcher, Brad Ausmus, calls "the best in the game, period," was biting with the ferocity of an old man missing his dentures.

"I didn't get it," Lidge said. "And it's a paralyzing feeling when they're hitting your pitches and you can't throw over the plate and you don't realize what the problem is."

So Lidge went on his own crusade this spring to find the cause and correct it. And he started by assuring himself that it wasn't inside his head, the residue from one of the hardest-hit home runs ever.

To call Albert Pujols' shot off Lidge in Game 6 of the 2005 National League Championship Series anything less would rob it of its proper due. Lidge fired his fastball, and, according to the home-run data aggregator Hit Tracker, the ball left Pujols' bat at 119.1 mph. As it climbed, seemingly never to come down, Lidge scorned himself, wholly unaware that Pujols' home run was the manifestation of something else – something that harried him for the next year.

"We tend to do this, all of us," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "We point to one pitch, one event, and say it caused a catastrophe. No. There were events that led up to it and events that furthered it afterward."

Unbeknown to Lidge, his mechanics had started to falter toward the end of the season. Because his two pitches were so good, the problems went largely unnoticed. Participating in the World Baseball Classic, where Lidge exerted himself too hard without the proper preparation, only exacerbated the issues.

Lidge started turning his left shoulder away from home plate during his delivery, a defect coaches call "flying open," which exposed his right arm too early. Hitters – particularly left-handers – saw Lidge's fastball right at its release point, and even if he did throw the slider, the flaw flattened it like a Frisbee.

"His mechanics were making it so that he couldn't make good pitches," Garner said. "When that starts to happen, everyone tells you that you have to make changes. So then he wants to add another pitch. And he tries a sinker. And then we talked about a splitter. And then he started cutting the ball. By then, he was totally out of whack."

It gnawed at Lidge. He'd always been so accountable, standing at his locker after the Pujols home run and talking about it to reporters again and again, for almost 30 minutes that night. Same after he yielded a game-winning World Series home run to Scott Podsednik. Teammates loved Lidge, even though he kept blowing game after game.

Still, no matter how hard he tried, Lidge couldn't close his shoulder.

"Pitchers go through slumps," Ausmus said. "It's just that pitching slumps are less frequent. You don't really identify them as slumps. But that's what it was."

Finally, after two implosions in the season's first week, Lidge lost his job as closer. Garner couldn't see him self-destruct any more, not when he saw a simple solution.

"I wanted to pitch him until he couldn't stand it," Garner said, "because it was going to be the repetition that got his mechanics right."

Which meant that Brad Lidge, who three years earlier had thrown one of the great relief seasons in history, became a mop-up guy. He pitched in the fifth inning of blowouts. He pitched in the sixth inning the next day. He pitched and pitched and pitched, because somewhere beneath the double-digit ERA resided the old Lidge.

And suddenly, April 23, two weeks after he lost his job, that Lidge emerged. The Astros were in Philadelphia, down 11-4, and Lidge came on in the eighth inning. Michael Bourn dinked a single to right field and Wes Helms dunked a ground-rule double down the left-field line. Second and third. No outs. The kind of situation Lidge used to thrive on.

Lidge started Aaron Rowand with two sliders at 86 mph for strikes. His shoulder stayed tucked tight with the rest of his body. When Rowand went fishing for an 88-mph slider for the first out, the Phillies broadcasters began lamenting Lidge's slide. One of them mentioned the Pujols home run.

"I tried to explain to people that it wasn't one swing, and they didn't want to hear that," Lidge said. "Then I thought, 'Why do I care?' I knew I was going to bounce back when my mechanics got ready. And they'd see right there, for themselves."

The next hitter, Rod Barajas, took a half-hearted hack at Lidge's slider and struck out. And pinch-hitter Jayson Werth fouled off two 97-mph fastballs, waited two minutes during a delay because Phillies fans threw something on the field and ended his at-bat by swinging about 30 minutes late on another fastball.

"For the first time," Lidge said, "I felt like my fastball was exploding and my slider was swinging and missing and I was back. And I felt great."

All the work with pitching coach Dave Wallace and Ausmus and Garner and even some from outside the organization who felt for Lidge manifested itself that day. Over the next six weeks, Lidge threw 25 1/3 innings and gave up two earned runs on 13 hits and six walks, striking out 36.

No home runs. No new pitches. No fixating on 2006.

Just Lidge earning the closer's job once again.

"I needed to change my luck," he said.

And yet Tuesday, in Lidge's first shot back in the ninth inning, he surrendered a long home run to Oakland outfielder Mark Kotsay that tied the score. Sure, he stranded Mark Ellis on third base after a double and wild pitch left him there with no outs, and Lidge could take some solace in that because the Astros won the game in the 11th inning. Still, he blew the save.

Lidge knows better than to harp. He looks back at the Crusades, at how long the struggles endured, and he realizes that the toughest battles – the ones that define a man and his legacy – are never won in one day.

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