BRAD LIDGE had just sandblasted the Cardinals, throwing two shutout innings to save the Astros' 5--2 Game 3 victory in the National League Championship Series last Saturday at Minute Maid Park, when Houston pitching coach Jim Hickey was asked about Lidge's availability for the next day. "These are not normal circumstances," Hickey said after Lidge had gone two innings and thrown 41 pitches, his second-highest total of the season. "If this were May, he wouldn't be pitching tomorrow, but if the situation calls for it, you'll see him out there again." Sure enough, Lidge got the call the next afternoon, and the righthander answered it, blanking St. Louis for two more innings on a comparatively economical 26 pitches to secure a 6--5 win and even the series at 2--2. He then threw nine pitches in one scoreless inning of the Astros' Game 5 win.
October is the litmus test for closers. They are worked more aggressively, pitching multiple innings as often as not. Through Monday 19 of the 33 appearances by closers this postseason have been for more than one inning, and those outings have accounted for 36 1/3 of their 48 innings pitched. Even more unconventional are the 20 appearances by closers in nonsave situations, totaling 28 2/3 innings pitched.
With the bridge innings proving to be unusually treacherous in both League Championship Series, games have turned on managers' boldness (or the lack thereof) in the use of their closers. In Game 4 of the ALCS on Sunday night, Red Sox skipper Terry Francona went to closer Keith Foulke in the seventh with the Red Sox trailing the Yankees 4--3 and righthanded setup man Mike Timlin struggling. Foulke came through, pitching 2 2/3 shutout innings, and Boston won it in the 12th on designated hitter David Ortiz's walk-off home run. Conversely, Houston manager Phil Garner's decision not to use a rested Lidge with the score tied at 4--4 in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS backfired when righthander Dan Miceli gave up back-to-back homers to Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen. The Astros ended up losing 6--4.
The prototype postseason closer remains the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who has popularized the four-, five- or six-out appearance, a testament to his ability and to manager Joe Torre's faith in him. Since he became New York's closer in '97, Rivera has exceeded one inning in 39 of his 58 postseason appearances. In those situations he's saved 26 of 30 games with a 0.51 ERA. He gets stronger as he works: In the second inning of those appearances his ERA is 0.45, and he has given up two earned runs in 40 1/3 innings. Rivera thus outclasses at least one of his potential World Series counterparts, the Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen, who had only one appearance of longer than one inning in his 14 playoff games.
Lidge has displayed durability and stamina all season. He unbuckles hitters, especially righthanders, with a high-90s fastball and a circuitous "front-door slider," as Hickey calls it. The emergence of the 27-year-old righty has emboldened the Astros, who know well the importance of finishing strong. "You get to this point in the year," says leftfielder Craig Biggio, "you're not going to win without a dominant closer." --D.G.H.
Final Four: Comparing the Closers in This Postseason
Games (Team W-L
More Than One Inning
Mariano Rivera, Yankees
Brad Lidge, Astros
Keith Foulke, Red Sox
Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals
Through LCS Game 5 WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched