DENVER - All September, Brad Lidge spoke of the last two nights. Each time he coughed up a save, each time his slider slid too much or too little, or his fastball sat up there in the hitter's eyes, he would talk about how his "crappy season" wouldn't mean anything to him once the postseason began.
"Did you believe it?" Lidge was asked as wave after wave of champagne poured over his head in the clubhouse following the Phillies' 5-4 clinching victory over the Rockies. "Or were you selling it to yourself?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "But deep down I really thought that it was going to happen. I'm not sure how else I would have said it. But I honestly felt that it was going to happen."
He entered the ninth inning of a one-run game again last night, the second time in a row. This time, unlike his three-out save in Game 3, he was assigned one man, one out. He had jammed Troy Tulowitzki with a fastball the night before, a night that he fed and fooled batters with a cutter he's been toying with all season. Now here was Tulowitzki again, only this time with two runners on, two men out.
This was a recipe for disaster even in his finest days, a recipe he never had to deal with when putting together his perfect season a year ago. The rule was simple then. Lidge gets a clean inning. Lidge doesn't clean up someone else's mess.
This is not a year ago. Lidge was the forgotten man when this first round began, or the reason most used in predicting the Phillies would not survive it. They had no closer. They had closers by committee.
"When he blew his first save, I think I started answering the question who is your closer, who is your closer, who is your closer," Charlie Manuel was saying last night. "I kept saying Lidge, Lidge, Lidge. And finally one night in Washington . . . it hit me that we weren't going to win the game. And I thought he's not going to do it."
Manuel brought in Ryan Madson. The Phillies won. "But it was hard for me to do that, because I am a loyal person," the manager said. "But at the same time . . . I'm a manager today because I don't let my heart overweigh the importance of the game."
Manuel also said that he "never once ever gave up on him, because I've always known that he could always get back to where he was at." But that moment in Washington was a watershed. People, smart people, said that there was no going back now, that once you abandon a closer like that, he was toast, at least for that season. That had happened to Lidge before, in Houston. That's how he got to Philly in the first place. All the stuff said about him down there then was said this summer - he was too nice, too fragile, too mechanically flawed.
He was a mess.
Except he wasn't. Messes don't want the ball. They bleat about being used too much or too little, make enemies of teammates even by the end. See Billy Wagner.
"It's easy to do in situations like this," Lidge said of recoiling. "But this game isn't about easy."
Lidge was told before the inning began last night that Scott Eyre would start the inning on the lefties. No problem he said. "You've got Tulowitzki," came the instructions from the dugout. The night before, starting the inning, Lidge faced Tulowitzki with two men on and two out. He had pitched carefully then, walking Carlos Gonzalez after an eight-pitch at-bat, walking Todd Helton on five pitches as well. He was targeted for the righthanded Tulowitzki in that inning, and he was again last night.
"Threw him cutters and fastballs," he said of the first time.
Last night it was slider, slider, slider, slider, fastball, slider. The third slider buckled Tulo. The last one produced a swing that was vintage 2008, vintage Eric Hinske.
Lidge looked to the sky, but stayed on his feet. There's work to be done.
"Honestly for me this has been special," he said. "Not that last year wasn't. But the two one-run games, against the home crowd, in my hometown . . . "
He was cut off again by another champagne attack. Lidge was a tough interview last night. Not because he was unwilling - even in his most horrific nights this season, he was always standing at his locker when the doors opened. But the attacks kept coming, full bottles, full beers, big, long soppy hugs in which grown men squeezed one another until puddles formed beneath them.
"I believe it's going to happen like it's going to keep happening," he said, finally. He has said that before. A lot. But this was the big stage he spoke of on those nights, the one with big outs in games that had no margin for error, the ones he hoped would bring his best out again.
Two one-run saves in two nights.
"I think," he said. "That these two games finally gave me the proof of that thinking." *
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