THE RECEPTION was lukewarm, the expectations low, when the Phillies obtained closer Brad Lidge from Houston last November for outfielder Michael Bourn, reliever Geoff Geary and minor league infielder Michael Costanzo. Lidge, after all, had lost the closer's job three times in the previous two seasons and had a bum right knee that would sideline him for all of spring training. Having already been savaged by Astros fans, usually a forgiving group, he'd now have to win over Philadelphia fans, a notoriously unforgiving group. The potential for Lidge to go over the ledge seemed very real.
Instead Lidge has turned out to be the greatest Christmas gift in recent memory for Phillies fans (no booing Santa Claus this year). For all his struggles the last two seasons, Lidge never lost his overpowering stuff; his strikeout rate of 12.17 per nine innings during that span was not far off his career rate of 12.50, the best in baseball history. The biggest difference this season, in which he had an 0.96 ERA and 17 saves in as many opportunities through Sunday, is that he has regained control of his devastating slider. Erratic command of that pitch enabled opponents to sit on his fastball in 2006 and '07, which helps explain the 19 homers he gave up during that stretch. (At week's end he had yet to surrender a homer this year.) "The Phillies stole him," one National League executive says of Lidge.
The turnaround could be lucrative for Lidge, who'll be a free agent at year's end. Even if he falters, however, Lidge—who says he loves it in Philly—insists that he's prepared for the worst. "I already know they boo like crazy if you're going bad," he says of his new team's fans. "I think it's great. Honestly, it ambushed me in Houston when they started [booing me]."
Lidge received some useful advice from Mets reliever Billy Wagner, another ex-Astros closer who was traded to Philadelphia. "I told him, 'Handle it better than I did,'?" says Wagner, who was effective as the Phillies' closer in 2004 and '05 but was booed for his candid remarks about the team's lackluster play. "Don't worry about what goes on in the stands."
(Then Wagner hoped for Lidge to start well. If not, Wagner explains, "you're never going to be able to win them back.")
Wagner also reminded Lidge that in Philadelphia he'd have "great teammates, great coaches and [his old Houston manager] Jimy Williams," a big Lidge supporter. Last year Astros manager Phil Garner "jerked him from the closer role [six] games into the season, and it probably played games with him," says Charlie Kerfeld, a special assistant to Phillies G.M. Pat Gillick. "For me, he's the premier righthanded power reliever. It's not rocket science."
Through Sunday, only Mariano Rivera (0.67) had a lower ERA among pitchers with at least 25 innings. "I've never pitched this well in my career," Lidge says. As for the painful knee, it turned out to be a blessing. When he returned to the mound, Lidge emphasized control over velocity. With the enhanced command came confidence. "He's out to prove he's still one of the best," says Wagner, "and he's out to prove he can win in that market."
ONLY AT SI.COM Get Jon Heyman's Daily Scoop.
CHRISTOPHER SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIA
SLIDER RULE Lidge's ability to control his breaking ball has kept his homer rate down.