VIERA, Fla. - Nothing could ruin Brad Lidge's most vivid and treasured memory of Philadelphia. He will forever have that raw 2008 October night at Citizens Bank Park when he struck out Tampa Bay's Eric Hinske, dropped to his knees, and looked skyward, triggering a wild celebration after the Phillies ended the city's 25-year championship drought.
It was the perfect end to Lidge's perfect season.
Nothing was close to perfect after that for Lidge, including the separation from the Phillies that took place this offseason.
Lidge is now a member of the Washington Nationals and expected to serve as a setup man for Drew Storen, one of the game's best young closers. Given his druthers, which looked promising for Lidge at one point during the winter, he would still be pitching for the Phillies.
"People have the right to change their mind," Lidge said after the Nationals held their first official workout Tuesday. "They did that and I respect the front office. They've been nothing but unbelievable in my time there and it's a first-class organization, so I don't really have anything bad to say. I just wish they had been more honest early, so I would have known that I couldn't count on them later in the process."
Lidge's version of the story is that the Phillies told him shortly after last season ended that "they'd be crazy" not to have him back.
It's crazy to think that the Phillies cannot go forward without a 35-year-old reliever who has lost the life from his fastball. On the other hand, it would not have been a ridiculous move to re-sign one of the classiest players ever to pull on Phillies pinstripes, especially if the cost was the same $1 million plus incentives he will be paid by the Nationals.
The perception and the reality of Lidge's work out of the Phillies bullpen became somewhat distorted during his final two seasons.
Catastrophic was the only way to describe a 2009 season that included an 0-8 record, 11 blown saves, a 7.21 ERA, and a losing Game 4 World Series appearance in which he surrendered three ninth-inning runs against the New York Yankees. It's not at all a stretch to believe that the Phillies would have won consecutive World Series titles if only Lidge had been half as good as he was the year before.
Arm injuries prevented Lidge from making it to the starting line in 2010 and 2011 and they also sapped the life from his mid-90s fastball. To his credit, Lidge learned to pitch with his high-80s fastball by relying more than ever on his floor-dropping slider.
In fact, he pitched far better than the public perceived in his final two seasons, converting 28 of 33 save opportunities while posting a 2.49 ERA in 75 games. He also struck out 75 batters in 65 innings, proof that the nasty bite on his slider still left hitters swinging at air.
He wasn't "lights out," but he wasn't lit up either.
When Lidge entered the offseason as a free agent, he believed he could find a team willing to sign him as a closer. He also believed the Phillies were his fallback position.
"I wanted to see if I had any chance to close somewhere else," he said. "When I realized I didn't, I was coming back to the Phillies. Right after New Year's, I said [to agent Rex Gary], 'Let's go back to Philadelphia for sure.' At some point in mid-January, we said, 'Let's talk about what we want to do.' They said, 'We've got nothing.' That was unexpected.
"They initially said that they'd be crazy not to have me back and it looked like it was going to happen. They didn't make an official offer or anything, but they had talked about numbers a little bit and we kind of knew where they were, and they said they wanted me back at that, and I was comfortable with it."
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the Phillies could not afford to wait for Lidge to make a decision.
"We talked about a modest deal early," Amaro said. "At the time, it wasn't something they wanted to do, so we moved in a different direction."
Five days after Lidge signed with Washington, the Phillies signed his former Houston Astros teammate Chad Qualls to a one-year deal worth $1.15 million plus incentives. Qualls, 33, is two years younger than Lidge and has been far more durable in recent years. But he never dropped to his knees and looked skyward after recording the final out of the World Series.
Lidge insisted the Qualls signing did not bother him.
"It didn't because Ruben was honest with me about the injury risk being too big," Lidge said. "He said, 'We might make another move to get somebody who is not an injury risk.' I like Chad Qualls a lot and the one thing I know about him is he's not an injury risk.
"If I'm going to leave and they're going to get anybody, I'm glad it's Chad Qualls. I'm friends with him and he's a workhorse. If they had gotten somebody who was an injury risk, then it would have stung."
As usual, Lidge traveled the high road - even with the potholes clearly visible in front of him.
Staff writer Matt Gelb contributed to this article.