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Original Issue

So Close ...

The Astros were on the brink of a pennant before Brad Lidge, the dominant reliever of the postseason, fell victim to Albert Pujols

BRAD LIDGE enters games at Minute Maid Park with all the accoutrements of a latter-day closer: caterwauling heavy-metal sound track; bold catchphrase (LIGHTS OUT) flashing on the scoreboard; auburn beard framing his chin; cap pulled low on his brow; deadeye Gary Cooper glare. He reserves this gaze for moments of great intensity, such as the one this spring at a Japanese restaurant in Orlando, near the Houston Astros' spring camp in Kissimmee. Lidge and utilityman Chris Burke decided to match GI tracts, betting which of them could eat more pieces of sushi in one sitting.

"We looked across the table, gave each other the stare down, and just said 'It's go time,'" Lidge said on Sunday evening. "Now, we have different approaches. Chris just eats as fast as he can, but I like to sit back and taste it, drink some water in between pieces. Fifty-five pieces each." At this, veteran reliever Russ Springer, seated at a nearby locker, intervened. "That's not competitive eating," he said. "It's gluttony."

Springer's more charitable assessment of Lidge--that "there's a competitiveness to him that's unbelievable, whether it's baseball or eating more than a human being should be able to"--explains why the 28-year-old righty has become perhaps the game's most stifling closer, the anchor of a deep, resilient bullpen that had pushed Houston to the precipice of its first World Series in the franchise's 44-year history. And it made Monday night's Game 5 denouement all the more shocking, as Lidge, at one point a strike away from ending the National League Championship Series, surrendered a two-out, three-run home run to Albert Pujols. The Brobdingnagian blast off the glass wall above the leftfield seats, which gave the Cardinals a 5--4 win and sent them back to St. Louis down three games to two, was the first homer Lidge had allowed in 211/3 postseason innings. It came on an 0--1 count, off a slider that hung like the morning's laundry. "He's probably the best closer in the game besides Mariano [Rivera]," Pujols said. "I just wanted to get a good pitch to hit."

It remained to be seen how Lidge and the rest of the Houston bullpen--which had been the team's greatest strength, and the source of its greatest advantage against St. Louis--would respond to the collapse. More experienced and with more evolved stuff than last year's edition, the pen had been a source of comfort for manager Phil Garner, who turned to it early and without hesitation. In last Saturday's Game 3, with the Astros ahead 4--3 and Lidge rested and ready, Garner left righthander Chad Qualls in for a second inning of work, the eighth, to face the Cardinals' formidable 3-4-5 hitters, Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker. Throwing his heavy, sinking fastball almost exclusively, Qualls put them down in order. In the sixth inning of Game 4, Garner leaped like a man with shorts afire to hook righty starter Brandon Backe, then working on a two-hitter, turning the game over to lefty Mike Gallo, Qualls, righty Dan Wheeler and Lidge, who shut St. Louis out on three hits. In Game 5 the same quartet had retired seven in a row and Lidge had the ballpark's sellout crowd of 43,470 roaring as he dismissed John Rodriguez and John Mabry, flailing in the face of his dive-bombing sliders, before the rally that was his undoing.

Garner's counterpart, Tony La Russa, suffered an unusual meltdown in Houston, preemptively questioning home plate umpire Wally Bell's strike zone before Game 3, then getting tossed out of Game 4 for haranguing Phil Cuzzi on balls and strikes from the St. Louis dugout. (Edmonds was run an inning later, after a marginal 3-and-1 fastball up and in from Wheeler was called strike two.) Looking beaten afterward, La Russa skirted the issue, saying only, "This game, there's some real great things about it, and there's some things that absolutely stink." A day later, however, the Cardinals, on the verge of seeing yet another dominant regular season come to naught, deferred disaster. Still, they had yet to redress La Russa's greatest failure with the organization: In six postseason trips his clubs were 11--22 in League Championship and World Series games.

Lidge's second-greatest regret of the weekend came when his alma mater, Notre Dame, lost its heartbreaker to USC, and, of greater import, cost him a bet with third baseman Morgan Ensberg, a Southern Cal grad, and first baseman Mike Lamb, who went to Cal State--Fullerton. The two supplied Lidge with a Trojans T-shirt to be worn for postgame interviews on Sunday. (Said Lamb, with evident disappointment, "I was hoping for face paint.") Lidge dutifully donned the shirt, though he confessed, "It's an utter disgrace. It feels like I've got cooties all over me." It was, it turned out, only the first brutal, late-hour reversal he would suffer. "Obviously, I'm upset about it now," Lidge said after Game 5, "but tomorrow it's gonna be gone. If I thought any other way, I wouldn't be closing. You take blown saves here and there, and you come back stronger." --Daniel G. Habib



TURNAROUND Pujols's blast, the first playoff homer allowed by Lidge, kept the Cards alive.