Qualls performing key role in Astros' pen

Astros reliever Dan Wheeler grew a goatee to match the one worn by Brad Lidge, so Chad Qualls grew a goatee to match Wheeler and Lidge, and now he looks even more like Lidge.

"I get mistaken for him all the time,'' Qualls said. "I'll go clothes shopping at the mall and someone will ask, 'Are you Brad?' I'll say, 'No, I'm Chad.' They walk away. They have no idea who I am.''

Qualls wears No. 50 and is the seventh-inning specialist in what has been a terrific bullpen for the Astros. The right-hander is 27 years old, was Houston's second-round pick in the 2000 draft, throws as hard as 95 mph and has a two-seam fastball that travels 88 mph. He's not Brad Lidge, even though he looks like him, and he's quite not Dan Wheeler, who usually pitches the eighth inning. But the Astros wouldn't be going to the World Series if not for Chad Qualls.

"He has been great,'' Astros pitching coach Jim Hickey said of Qualls.

Qualls went 6-4 with a 3.28 ERA this season, which technically is still his rookie year even though he pitched critical innings last year in the National League Championship Series. In 79-2/3 innings this year, he gave up 73 hits, issued 23 walks and had 60 strikeouts.

He has been even better in the postseason. In Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, he took over for a tiring Roger Clemens after six innings, threw two scoreless innings, struck out three and turned the game over to Lidge, who saved the 3-2 win. In Game 4, he pitched a scoreless seventh, Wheeler threw the eighth and Lidge the ninth in a 2-1 victory. And in Game 6, the pennant clincher, he ripped through the eighth inning against the three toughest outs in the St. Louis lineup, retiring David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols, in order.

"Our bullpen has been so good all year,'' said Astros manager Phil Garner. "Everyone knows about Lidge, but it has been the other guys, too. Not many people like facing Qualls.''

Qualls' success is somewhat surprising given that early last season he was a struggling starting pitcher in Triple-A. Then he got called up to the big leagues to help in a bullpen that needed help.

"The first thing I did was call Brad because, like me, he had started before and now he's in the bullpen,'' said Qualls. "His biggest piece of advice was to come out of the bullpen and just let it go -- slider, fastball -- let it go. So I did. I've gone right after hitters.''

It also helped that soon after his recall, he befriended Russ Springer, a veteran reliever who had just come out of retirement to pitch in the Houston bullpen. Springer has a great way with people and a great sense of humor. When Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan entered the Astros' clubhouse after Game 4, Springer asked a writer, "Can I borrow your press pass so I can go talk to Nolan. I want to ask him how he held his curveball.'' Qualls and Springer hit it off immediately and are best friends now.

"Russ got me on a stretching program, among other things,'' Qualls said. "Before I met him, I'd just get up in the bullpen and start throwing. Now I'm more warmed up when I go in.''

Springer (and others) taught Qualls a little more about concentration. "You have to focus when you go out there,'' he said. "I'm on the top of the baseball world right now -- you can't pitch at a higher level than where we are now. You must focus more than ever.''

He is doing that, and he has refined his two-seam fastball, the one that sinks and runs in on right-handed hitters and away from left-handed hitters.

"It really starting coming around for me two years ago,'' Qualls said. "I've had it since college, and I've always thrown pretty hard, but now when I can throw that two-seamer down, I'm a better pitcher.''

In Wednesday night's Game 6, he was a really good pitcher, as he has been all year and especially in this postseason. When he retired the side in order in the eighth, ending all hope of a Cardinals comeback, Qualls looked like Lidge more than ever. Now maybe the people at the mall, and all around Houston, will know he's Chad, not Brad.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.