Lidge returns to Houston as a Phillie

May 22, 2008 8:35:15 PM PDT
Brad Lidge walked into Minute Maid Park on Thursday and the memories, good and bad, came flooding back. The 31-year-old closer was back for the first time since Houston traded him to Philadelphia last November, as the Phillies and Astros began a four-game series.

Lidge got off to a satisfying start, too, earning the save in Philadelphia's 7-5 victory Thursday night.

"I was excited to get here and actually, surprised, kind of walking down by the parking garage back into the tunnel here, how excited I was getting," Lidge said before the opener. "I stopped in and said hi to some of the guys in the home clubhouse. It's great to see everybody. Trying to get used to the angles here. Everything seemed flipped around a little bit."

Lidge emerged as one of the game's dominant closers with the Astros in 2004, striking out 157 batters, an NL record for a reliever. He saved a career-high 42 games in 2005, striking out 103.

Then came the infamous home run by Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the 2005 NL championship series, and Lidge was never the same.

He blew six saves with a 5.28 ERA in 2006, then squandered eight more save chances in 2007. He was booed by the fans, lambasted by callers to radio shows and demoted from the closer's role.

The Astros missed the playoffs and two months after the season ended, Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett were traded to Philadelphia for center fielder Michael Bourn, reliever Geoff Geary and minor leaguer Mike Costanzo.

"I'm not cheering against anybody or anything like that," Lidge said. "I'm not taking it personally. It's just a move they made to try to get the team better."

So far, the change of scenery has done wonders. Lidge is 12-for-12 in save chances with a 0.43 ERA, and he has allowed only one earned run in 21 innings.

"Having a new start just gave me an opportunity to kind of wipe the slate clean and say, 'You know what? Just do well. You're meeting these guys, you're showing them you're going to work hard and that you're going to do whatever it takes to help the team win,"' Lidge said. "With that attitude, all the other stuff kind of goes away and it just makes it a little easier."

Lidge said he had started pitching with a flawed mentality in his last two seasons in Houston. He was constantly reminded of Pujols' homer and listened too much to armchair psychologists analyze how it affected him.

Lidge went into every outing trying to show up his critics, but that just made things worse.

"In the past, when I was struggling a little bit, I was trying to pitch to prove there was nothing wrong with me," he said. "Sometimes, you get in that kind of lack-of-confidence situation, and you're pitching out of your game a little bit."

Lidge underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in February and worked on his control, knowing that he wouldn't immediately get his velocity back. He says he's a better pitcher now than he ever was in six seasons with the Astros because he's focused on locating his pitches rather than simply trying to overpower batters.

"I'm pitching the best of my career right now," he said. "Pitching here, I always felt like I had great stuff and I was just rearing back and letting it eat, throwing the slider as hard as I could, the fastball as hard as I could. Right now, the arm strength is still there, the stuff is still there. But I feel like my control is a lot better and that's helped me become perhaps better than I was at my peak here."

Lidge said he's enjoying baseball again, a feeling he started to lose in Houston. Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, who's kept in touch with Lidge, said his former teammate is just glad to be back to his old self.

"I think it's more relief," Ausmus said. "I think he was happy here, I think he liked the people here. He's doing well and generally speaking, when a player is doing well, he's happy."

Lidge said he harbors no bitterness toward the Astros for trading him, understanding the nature of the business. But he was looking forward to trotting out of the visitors' bullpen to close out a win against his old team.

"It's human nature to want to do good against the team you got traded from," he said. "I want to get one in and obviously, I've thrown a few games here, so I should be familiar with it."