Confidence Game

He laughs when you ask him about Albert Pujols. He stands in front of his locker, being more patient than he has to be, waiting for your slow journey to enlightenment. "No, it's not about that," Brad Lidge says, shaking his head. "It's not any one thing."

It would be easy if it were just Pujols. One moment, one hanging slider, one severely branded piece of leather. It would be easy if Lidge could point out Pujols in a lineup and say, "That's the guy. He's the perp—took my mojo and blasted it over the leftfield wall." It would be simple, clear. Like in the second half hour of Law & Order , we'd all know who'd done what to whom.

But what happened to Brad Lidge is more complicated than that. Pujols' towering home run in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, humbling as it was, merely delayed the Astros' first-ever pennant celebration by two days. It may have robbed one of the game's most feared closers of his illusion of invincibility, but it was only one among many elements that conspired to bring about his downfall. As Lidge battles this season to reclaim his powers and restore the confidence of his manager, or maybe showcase himself for a trade, those who know him join those who peer at him from a distance in trying to understand how he got from there to here.

At his best, Lidge commands the fastest, meanest slider Jeff Kent has ever seen. In combination with a 97 mph fastball, the Lidge slider, at 87 mph dropping down and away to righthanded hitters, is the most wicked of swing-and-miss pitches. "It makes you look silly," Kent says. "There's absolutely nothing you can do with it when it's right."

Over two seasons (2004 and 2005), Lidge racked up 71 saves and an average of 14.15 strikeouts per nine innings. Dominant stuff was a huge part of the righthander's success, but so too was the attitude that Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley and Eric Gagné displayed in spades, a certain ineffable mix of hunger and rage—the closer's edge. Lidge had it from the jump. "He'd come at you like a buzz saw," says Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti. "He'd just put you away." He was at ease in the moment, comfortable with "LIGHTS OUT LIDGE" on the scoreboard, the noisy rush of expectation in the stands and the hurried pulse in his own head. That was closing. That was him. "You need real nerve and a short memory to close," says former Astros pitching coach Jim Hickey, now with the Devil Rays. "It's not for everyone. You need to relish it. And he loved it. That's what separated Brad. That's what put hitters on edge, even before he threw the first pitch."

Such capability and confidence don't break or crumble at the swing of a bat. They erode bit by bit. Six months before Pujols' homer, pneumonia knocked Lidge off his feet for a week, left him exhausted and lured him into yanking through his delivery in search of his familiar velocity. (A blown save, two home runs and five earned runs later, he found his way back to Lights Out.) A strained biceps cost him two more weeks in late June. And in September and early October, he pitched 17of his 70µ innings, then another 12µ in the postseason. "We were working toward trouble," says manager Phil Garner. "We pitched him a lot. He was tired, and we knocked him off his mechanics." Include in the mix Lidge's first post-Pujols appearance, in Game 2 of the World Series, in which he served up a walk-off homer to Scott Podsednik (Scott Podsednik?) that echoed and amplified Pujols' blast, making it feel like a nasty little trend. And recall his participation in the World Baseball Classic in March 2006, a surprisingly supercharged event that forced Lidge to dial it up higher and earlier than he'd anticipated.

Add it up, and you have a man who left the WBC feeling out of whack. Was his left shoulder opening too early? Was he missing the release point on his slider, throwing a spiraling cement mixer instead of something that darts and dives? Could he locate the fastball? Could he still hit 97 on the gun? "When you start thinking, you are dead ," says Eckersley, the Hall of Fame closer. "When you think about anything other than 'There's my spot, here's my pitch,' you are completely screwed."

Pitching, maybe more than anything else in sports, is a Zen experience, a profound letting go, a deep trust. You do not guide; you believe. You do not force; you allow. Between the rubber and the plate, the path of the ball follows an arc of faith, and each pitch, once committed to a spot in the catcher's mitt, is a dedicated, risky renewal of that faith. When Hickey says "Confidence is everything, and ultimate confidence is essential," he's not talking about some steel-cojones desire to come with the cheese no matter the situation. He's referencing this precarious balance, a place where thoughts and words don't illuminate but instead wreak havoc.

Lidge spent 2006 mucking around in that place. "You don't feel right, and you're looking for something," he says. Maybe it's some split-second- longer pause with your forward knee up, maybe it's some trick to keep your front shoulder closed, or maybe it's tinkering with where you bring the ball out of the glove and how quickly you move your pitching arm forward to the release point. There are stretches where it comes together, and then stretches where it falls apart. "Some little adjustment would mean I was showing the ball early, and my location, especially on the fastball, would be terrible," Lidge says. "I was giving hitters a huge advantage."

It's a mechanical thing, but it's a psychological thing, too. Lidge still believed he could pitch well. He was still confident he could close. But pitch to pitch, batter to batter, he was often rattled, unsure. "I saw him pitching around So Taguchi at one point," says Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice. "That's when I knew he'd obviously lost his confidence."

The stakes were high. A closer is the proverbial man in the arena, naked before God and the masses. All eyes are on him. Success over time means an intense sort of bonding between the player and the role. "It's such a supercharged atmosphere," Eckersley says. "Everything feels heightened. When you succeed, you feel larger than yourself, connected to something really special. When you fail, you're completely lost. Your identity, the whole way you think of yourself and what you're worth—and the way you imagine other people are thinking of you—is shattered."

With his inside a mess, Lidge looked outside, turning to friends and colleagues for advice. He stands before you in the clubhouse now, perched at the balance point of his delivery, like the Karate Kid poised on a pylon, and recounts Roger Clemens' telling him to hold there long enough to get a downward angle on the ball. He assumes his stretch position and peers in at an imaginary plate across the carpet, rehearsing Nolan Ryan's admonition to begin with and proceed through checkpoints in his delivery.

Lidge was open, eager for insight, willing to learn. He never curled up, never backed off, kept working the problem. But his open heart betrayed him some, left him listening to too much from too many. And beyond the din of the friendly were the boos and buzz from his detractors, in the stands and in the press box. "I started pitching to prove to people that there was nothing wrong with me," he says.

In front of him were hitters with new hope. As Lidge struggled with his command and tried to improvise solutions, guys who were once lost trying to guess between a fastball they couldn't catch up with and a slider they couldn't lay off suddenly found themselves ahead in counts, sitting on the fastball, with a decent shot at contact. Bye-bye, mystique; hello, ugly new ERA north of 5. "Word got out," Garner says. "They figured out where he was missing and made adjustments. It wasn't the same as it had been."

Lidge's overall numbers weren't terrible—he still managed 32 saves and 104 K's in 2006—but the quality of his performances wasn't up to his own high standards. "We had come to expect 11-pitch, three-strikeout innings," Hickey says. "He looked like he was in trouble. He looked vulnerable, when measured against himself."

By the time Garner finally took him out of the closer's role this April, explaining that the "aura around him was just real bad," Lidge was adrift. He had experimented with and then abruptly ditched a cut fastball he hoped would make him more effective against lefthanders, who hit .286 off him in 2006 (compared to .201 for righties). He had blown his first save opportunity, given up two home runs, walked seven hitters and accumulated an ERA of 10.13 in 5innings.

What followed was surreal. Lidge was pitching middle relief, holding down 8-3 leads, mopping up after the Astros were out of games. "It made no sense to me, what was happening to him," says good friend Dan Wheeler, who was tabbed the new closer. "It was mind boggling. The guy has the best two pitches in the league." Still trying to pull his way out of the descent, Lidge would infuse the opportunities with imaginary drama, pretending they were one-run games and picturing inherited runners. He wasn't satisfied with the new gig, but he'll tell you the steady work and the chance to focus on mechanics with less on the line were helpful. And as a middle man, Lidge went back to his bread and butter, the fastball and slider. "Guys tend to expand when things aren't going well," Garner says. "They try more, they hunt for solutions, when really what they need to do is contract, refocus on what they do well, and to hell with the rest of it."

It didn't happen right away. The moment things became painfully clear for Lidge, after so much worrying and tinkering, happened in Philadelphia on April 23. He took the mound in the eighth inning of a game the Astros were losing 11-4. The first batter, Michael Bourn, to that point a .105 hitter in his short career, laced a single to right.

The next batter, journeyman Wes Helms, ripped a ground-rule double to left, putting two runners aboard for Aaron Rowand. Says Lidge: "I just remember thinking, This is it—there's nowhere to go from here. It can't possibly get worse. I am sick and tired of worrying about things that aren't in my control. The more I worry, the worse things become. I'm just going to throw. If they hit it, so be it." He walked off the hill, took a deep breath, came back to the rubber and let fly. Down went Rowand swinging. Next up was Rod Barajas—another strikeout swinging. Ditto Jayson Werth.

For the first time in well over a year, Lidge pitched free and clear of expectation. He found his flow way down at the bottom of the well. "I was so frustrated, so mad, that I finally came up against it," he says. "I was at a place, even though it was a pretty bad place, where I felt like I did when I was at my best. I felt like I could put everything else aside and say, 'Here we go, I'm coming at you.'"

In his next 22 appearances, spanning 24 innings, Lidge gave up two earned runs, struck out 33, surrendered zero home runs, walked only six batters, lowered his ERA to 2.35 and regained his closer's role. In other words, since that night in Philly, he has looked a whole lot like Brad Lidge.

Only different. The early Lidge closed with a kind of magical, innocent confidence, the gift of amazing stuff and a spotless record. This Lidge, the revised and resolved second edition, pitches with the grit of experience. This Lidge, at age 30, has wandered in the desert and found his way home. His power pitches come now with a deep understanding of what it is to feel powerless. His adjusted mechanics are more stable, and executed with greater patience, because they're grounded in a profound appreciation of what he calls "finally getting on top of myself again."

He's using new-age tools now, visualizing a good pitch in a tough situation before he delivers it, taking deep breaths and taking inventory. So he slows himself down, stepping out of the accelerated tension of the moment in order to put it in perspective, in order to inhabit it rather than let it throw him.

Pitching coach Dave Wallace likes what he sees in Lidge right now, because it's something he has seen before. It reminds him of John Franco, whose path to 424 career saves included struggles with confidence and command and changes in roles. It reminds him of Trevor Hoffman, a power pitcher who reinvented himself as a changeup artist on his way to the all-time saves record. "A lot of guys go through some sort of period of frustration and adjustment," Wallace says. "The ones who stick around a long time, as I expect Brad will, they have to go through these periods and come out on the other side."

Is Lidge on the other side? It's too early to say. Putting up zeros in the seventh and eighth isn't the same thing as doing it in the ninth, with a one-run lead and everybody watching and wondering whether you're going to spit it up. It's a work in progress. On June 12, Lidge blew his first ninth-inning save opportunity since April, hanging a slider to Oakland's Mark Kotsay on an 0-2 pitch. But after the game-tying homer and a subsequent Mark Ellis double, Lidge regained his groove, striking out Nick Swisher and Eric Chávez and getting Bobby Crosby to pop up. "You can't run from that nervousness," Eckersley says. "You have to manage it. You have to let it fuel you without overwhelming you."

Even if Lidge has some success, the question of whether what he has learned is enough to bring him all the way back, to dominate again, won't really be answered until he's facing some new Pujols. There's talk that the Astros gave Lidge his job back on a short leash, in anticipation of the July 31 trading deadline. It doesn't take much to imagine him in a Red Sox or Indians or Tigers uniform come crunch time. It doesn't take much to see him on the hill in a tight postseason game facing one of the game's great sluggers. What's hard to predict is how it will play. Confidence, even among elite performers, is a fragile thing. The usual suspects will be whispering in his ear, pushing his pitches and pulling at his mechanics, telling him he can't be what he once was. But it's not about being what he once was. It's about being what he is now, and understanding how he got here. And trusting that that's enough.