If we were to sit down and create a list of the five most memorable baseball moments of the 21st century, the home run Albert Pujols hit off Brad Lidge in Game Three of the 2005 NLCS would be on it. It’s not even a question of if it would be on the list, but where. Baseball has a way of making your jaw drop — think David Freese, Aaron Boone, Bill Buckner — and that homer certainly qualifies. The crowd going dead silent in an instant, Andy Pettitte saying “oh my gosh,” the thud of the ball off the window … we remember it like it was yesterday.
Fair or not, that homer is the first thing that jumps to everyone’s mind when they think of Lidge. He was arguably the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball at the time, pitching to a 2.10 ERA (2.44 FIP) with 14.15 K/9 (39.4 K%) in 165.1 innings from 2004-2005. His 157 strikeouts in 2004 were the most by a pitcher who pitched exclusively in relief since Mark Eichhorn struck out 166 batters in 1986. Eichhorn did it in 157 innings. Lidge did it in 94.2. Carlos Marmol is the only pitcher to come within 25 strikeouts of Lidge’s total since 2004 (138 in 2010).
Earlier this month, Lidge quietly announced his retirement from baseball following a career that spanned parts of eleven seasons. He ranks 37th on the all-time saves list with 225, sandwiched right between Hoyt Wilhelm and Gene Garber. At some point next year Huston Street will pass him, then J.J. Putz will pass him the year after. Lidge is third on the Astros all-time saves list behind Billy Wagner and Dave Smith, and fourth on the Phillies all-time saves list behind Jose Mesa, Steve Bedrosian, and Mitch Williams. His place among history’s greatest closers won’t get him remembered, but that homer will.
Personally, there are three things about Lidge that stick out to me. First, it’s that utterly insane 2004 effort. Craig Kimbrel just had a season for the ages, but in 2004 Lidge pitched to level that wasn’t too far below Kimbrel’s while throwing 51% more innings in much less pitcher-friendly era. Secondly, it’s the strikeouts. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 600 career innings, a list that is 1,741 players deep, Lidge’s 11.92 K/9 and 30.9 K% are tops among right-handers and second overall to Wagner. During the PITCHf/x era, batters whiffed at his slider with more than 45% of their swings. That doesn’t even include his peak 2004-2005 seasons.
Third, it’s how that homer by Pujols supposedly screwed him up. Lidge allowed runs in two of his next three postseason outings that year after allowing runs in two of his first 13 playoff games. He pitched to a 5.28 ERA and 3.79 FIP the following season, which was wildly out of line with his career norms, and was demoted out of the closer’s role. Pujols had broken him, as the story goes. A year later he was traded to the Phillies for a package headlined by Michael Bourn only to have a brilliant 2008 campaign (1.95 ERA and 2.41 FIP) that resulted in a World Championship. If the Pujols homer is the first mental image you see when you think of Lidge, this is probably second.
Lidge, who turns 36 this weekend, was never really the same after that 2008 season, though there was no jaw-dropping moment to build a narrative around. He was relatively young but his arm was not — throwing slider after slider in 65+ appearances year after year takes a toll on a pitcher physically. Very few guys are built to throw 50%+ sliders over the long haul. Injuries were starting to pop up, his command was starting to slip, all sorts of perfectly normal age-relate things started to set in. Lidge was broken for good this time, but not because of Pujols.
Fittingly, Lidge’s final act as a Major Leaguer was a strikeout. He unceremoniously whiffed Freddy Garcia in extra innings of an interleague game against the Yankees this summer after allowing the go-ahead runs to score. Washington designated him for assignment a day later and no team picked him for the remainder of the season. Lidge retires with 799 strikeouts, 225 saves, several seasons as one of baseball’s most dominant relievers, a handful of Cy Young and MVP votes, and one really bad pitch that he’d like to have back. Despite a great career, he’ll always be remembered for being on the wrong end of one of baseball’s most memorable moments.