Brad Lidge is one of two baseball players whose time at Notre Dame coincided with mine. He pitched from 1996-98, putting together a 13-5 record and 4.86 ERA, with 143 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings. Though he’s worn No. 54 throughout his Major League career, in South Bend Lidge donned No. 20, the same digits worn for the Irish by former Expos hurler Dan McGinn and current Phillies farmhand Jeremy Barnes.
From the 2011 Notre Dame Media GuideIn ’98, Lidge and third baseman Brant Ust were the fourth Irish teammates to earn the Big East’s player and pitcher of the year awards in the same season, when Lidge was 8-2 with a 4.15 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. He started 15 of the 16 games in which he appeared and his 93 strikeouts are 10th all-time in Irish history heading into this season, tied with two others (Alex Shilliday in ’98 and Brian Dupra last year). On April 18, 1998, Lidge struck out 12 in seven innings in a game vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium, the seventh-highest total by one pitcher in a game for the Irish.
After his junior season in ’98, Lidge was the Astros’ first-round pick, taken 17th overall — the highest selection ever used on a Domer and the same slot used by the White Sox to take catcher Ken Plesha in the first draft in 1965 and by the Diamondbacks on outfielder A.J. Pollock in ’09. It took Lidge four years to reach the Majors, however, mostly because of shoulder and elbow injuries. He pitched in just four games in the minors in ’98, six in ’99, eight in 2000 and five in 2001 — that’s 23 games (and 100 innings) total in his first four professional seasons. They were all starts, however, as the Astros continued to groom the hard-throwing right-hander as a starting pitcher.
In ’02 that changed. Lidge pitched 24 games at Triple-A New Orleans and another five at Double-A Round Rock, combining for 10 relief appearances between the two levels and racking up a career-high 122 2/3 innings. He also made his Major League debut that season, on April 26 at Atlanta. One week later, he appeared in a game at home against the Mets before being sent down until September.
The next year, Lidge made the Astros bullpen out of spring training and quickly teamed up in the late innings with Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, whom he credited for taking him under their wings. The mentoring paid off as Lidge posted a 0.69 ERA in his first nine appearances, all coming in the Astros’ first 17 games. Almost immediately, Lidge was a key part of the bullpen.
The formidable late-inning trio was perhaps no better than the night of June 11 at Yankee Stadium. Roy Oswalt started that game but aggravated a groin injury in the second inning and was pulled having faced three batters without allowing a hit. Five relievers followed, none of them yielding a hit, either, completing the first no-hitter consisting of six pitchers in Major League history. It was the first no-no against the Yankees since 1958 and the first against them at Yankee Stadium since ’52. Lidge pitched the sixth and seventh perfectly, striking out two, and was awarded the win. Dotel pitched the eighth and Wagner the ninth.
At the end of the season, Lidge’s ledger showed a 6-3 record, 3.60 ERA, one save and 97 strikeouts in 85 innings. Houston (87-75) finished second, a game behind the NL Central champion Cubs and four games behind the wild-card winning (and eventual World Series champion) Marlins. Lidge finished in a tie for fifth with the Marlins’ Miguel Cabrera in the NL Rookie of the Year voting (won by Florida left-hander Dontrelle Willis) and his emergence allowed the Astros to trade Wagner to the Phillies for three prospects, making Dotel the closer and Lidge the eighth-inning guy.
The Astros started the 2004 season strong, never falling more than 2 1/2 games out of first place through the first two months. But a mediocre first three weeks of June, during which they went 10-10, saw Houston fall as far as fifth place and seven games off the pace. After a 7-2 loss to the Pirates on June 23, the Astros were 37-34 and five games behind the first-place Cardinals. The next day, Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker acquired Carlos Beltran in a three-team trade that saw Dotel shipped to Oakland by way of Kansas City. Lidge, who had saved two games so far that season, was promoted to closer.
The move didn’t pay immediate dividends as the Astros slipped to 44-44 heading into the All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park. The day after the Midsummer Classic, manager Jimy Williams was fired and Phil Garner took over, guiding Houston to a 48-26 second-half record and the NL Wild Card berth. Lidge finished the season with a 6-5 record and 1.90 ERA — still a career best over a full season — and 29 saves. He also struck out 157 batters in 94 2/3 innings, the fourth-most in MLB history for a pitcher with no starts, and his 14.93 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio is also fourth among relievers with at least 70 innings, behind Wagner’s 14.95 in 1999, Eric Gagne‘s 14.98 in ’03 and Carlos Marmol‘s 15.99 in 2010. When the Astros dispatched the Braves in a five-game NL Division Series that October, it marked the first postseason series win in franchise history. The run ended there, though, because the Cardinals won the NLCS in seven games.
In 2004 as Houston’s full-time closer, Lidge came back to earth a little bit, going 4-4 with a 2.29 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings. He did save 42 games, though, good for third in Astros history, just two behind the record 44 posted in 2003 by Wagner and matched in 2008 by Jose Valverde. And Houston won the NL Wild Card again, turned away Atlanta in the NLDS again, and faced St. Louis once again in the NLCS. Lidge saved three games against the Cardinals, but he also lost a memorable Game 5 that you may remember.
Lidge came on in the ninth with a 4-2 lead and Houston needing three more outs to reach its first World Series. He struck out John Rodriguez and John Mabry, both swinging, for two quick outs. David Eckstein and Jim Edmonds were the next two batters up before Albert Pujols, and Eckstein grounded a single to left field and Edmonds walked. Then Pujols, on an 0-1 count, crushed a towering home run that would have left Minute Maid Park had the roof been open. The win forced Game 6 back in St. Louis.
The Astros recovered, though, winning Game 6, 5-1, to advance to their first World Series, where they’d face the White Sox. Chicago took Game 1, and Lidge made his first appearance in Game 2 with the score tied 6-6 in the ninth. After retiring Juan Uribe on a fly ball to center, Lidge yielded a walk-off home run to Scott Podsednik to put the Astros in an 0-2 hole heading home for Game 3. The White Sox completed the sweep at Minute Maid Park.
Lidge pitched two more seasons in Houston, saving 32 and 19 games, before a November 2007 trade to the Phillies with Eric Bruntlett for three prospects. The 2008 season, of course, stands as Lidge’s finest in a Major League uniform. He went 41-for-41 in save opportunities in the regular season, winning two other games without a loss and striking out 92 in 69 1/3 innings. The BBWAA voted him fourth in the NL Cy Young Award balloting, the only reliever among the six highest vote-getters. He added seven more saves without a hiccup in the postseason, allowing just one run in 9 1/3 innings across three series, culminating in the final out of the World Series win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
That made Lidge the sixth Domer to win the World Series — the first since Craig Counsell and the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in 2001. And like Counsell in ’97 with the Marlins, Lidge had a hand in the final play; Counsell scored the winning run in a walk-off Game 7 win. The other Series winners who once suited up for the Irish are Ed Reulbach (1907-08 Chicago Cubs), Jean Dubuc (1916 Boston Red Sox), John McHale (1945 Detroit Tigers) and Ron Reed (1980 Philadelphia Phillies).
The past three years haven’t been as fruitful. Lidge went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA in ’09 (saving 31 games), then managed 27 saves and a 2.96 ERA in 2010, missing chunks of time in April and May. His 2011 season didn’t begin until late July, after rehab stints with Lakewood and Reading, and consisted of only 19 1/3 innings over 25 games. He saved one game, matching his 2003 total. He hadn’t had fewer than 19 since then.
This year, Lidge begins a new chapter in his career after signing a free-agent deal with the Washington Nationals. I spoke with him last September in Philadelphia.
Were you following Notre Dame before looking for colleges?
I enjoyed watching them on TV. I watched a little bit of college football, so I was very aware of their mystique and legacy and everything else. But, to be honest, I never thought I’d be going there. When I was in high school, I never really thought I’d ever have a chance to play at a Division I school until I was a senior. It happened kind of late. When I knew it was a possibility, my parents were like, “You’re so lucky. It’s unbelievable.”
What was it that made you ultimately choose Notre Dame?
Recruiting trip. I already kind of felt like it’s going to be tough to beat a school like this. The coaches in the baseball program at the time — Paul Manieri, Brian O’Connor — they were awesome, even just as a recruit there, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
In the fall of ’97, Craig Counsell came back after the Marlins won the World Series. I covered it for the South Bend Tribune. Do you remember that? Were you in the room for that?
I was. I do remember that. I don’t remember exactly what he said. I do remember it was a really cool thing to know that somebody from our school had just done that. And hey, if you can get to the point where you keep playing well, you have a chance to do that too.
One of the things he said to the group was, “One of you guys could be in this position one day.”
Right. Which is, obviously, ironic.
I think you’re one of five ND alums who’s won a World Series. One pitched for the Cubs in 1908.
Oh really? That’s going way back. That’s awesome.
You were drafted in ’98 by Houston. What do you remember about that experience? Do you remember getting that call?
Oh yeah. You never know what to expect, but you hear a lot of stuff. On the actual day of the draft, I had some family and some friends over at my house.
[Jimmy Rollins cuts in after hearing about a draft: “Are you talking about fantasy football?”]
You know, if I was playing fantasy football as far back as ’98, I would be a pioneer.
I had my friend’s dad hook up the internet for us, because that was a big deal in ’98. I mean, it wasn’t too big of a deal, but it was still — we didn’t have it at our house. I remember following it live as it was happening. People were saying first round [for me], but you don’t know. Sixteen picks go by, and I’m like, “Man, I hope I’m not a fourth-round guy.” But then, 17 came up and I got drafted and we had a little bit of a party with family and friends.
I’m glad to see the draft getting more attention in baseball. Obviously, the guys don’t go right into the big leagues, but it’s still very important to the sport.
The draft was an awesome experience for me. I think for a lot of guys, if it becomes more important, it will be a lot more exciting [to follow] for everybody.
Coming up, you overcame a lot of injuries, didn’t you?
I did. Right away, I had four surgeries in three years, my first three years in the minor leagues. To be honest, that’s maybe the toughest point in my career. I’d say definitely the toughest point in my career, actually, because it’s at that point, you don’t know if you’re ever going to play in the Major Leagues, if you’re body’s ever going to allow you to do it. I was fortunate in that when I was on the field, I pitched well, so I was able to move up each year, but it was a slow move. Obviously, with the injuries, even though I was throwing the ball well, it still took me four years to get to the big leagues because of the injuries.
What do you remember from your big league debut?
I remember we were in Atlanta. It was a blowout game and it was like the third inning, and our manager was like, “Alright, let’s give this rook a try.” I went out there and my legs, they felt like jello. That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been, a hundred percent, no doubt, for sure. Miraculously, the first inning, I think I had a 1-2-3 inning, and they sent me back out for a second inning and the wheels fall off. I think I gave up a walk, a double, a single, another walk …
I looked it up to be sure. I believe you did give up a single to B.J. Surhoff, to lead off, but then you did retire the rest in order. The next two you got strikeouts. And then yeah, the next inning is when the runs came.
Yeah, exactly. It’s one of those bittersweet things where you wish it would’ve gone perfect, but you’re just so happy you just got in there, too. But of course, then, two innings, two runs, you’re sitting with a 9.00 ERA, too. I think I got in one more outing, against the Mets, and then I got sent back down for a while in 2002. It was really cool, but not exactly what I wanted.
Of your whole career, what’s your best memory so far?
Yeah, we’ll go with the 2008 World Series. That being said, there are some other memories that stick out that were amazing. In 2003, my first full season, we threw that no-hitter in New York. That was pretty cool. That was a pretty unique experience, if nothing else. I think for me, the clinching games where I got to pitch in Houston. Where we went to the playoffs and won a series for the first time in the history of the franchise, that was a really cool experience for me as well. But I think nothing will be able to compare to 2008.
You said your debut was the most nervous you’ve ever been, but ’08, coming in for the last inning, not so much?
Not as much nervous, but I could feel a more palpable energy at that point than I’ve ever felt in my career.
What was it like to go back to campus after winning the World Series and be introduced on the field [with the Notre Dame baseball team] prior to a football game?
That was one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s cool to go back to your high school and be recognized, but to go back to your college — and a big-time college like Notre Dame — is something else. I got to go back with my dad, stand on the field where I watched so many big games and wave to the student body. It was awesome.