Bill Lyon: Nationals turn lights out on Lidge

Past perfect: Brad Lidge was 48 for 48 in '08.
Past perfect: Brad Lidge was 48 for 48 in '08. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff)
Posted: June 24, 2012

Requiem for a Reliever . . .

 It is 9:58 in the East, the 29th of October, 2008, a Wednesday, tart and brittle, and Philadelphia is a boiling sea of expectation and anticipation. A Phillies pitcher named Bradley Thomas Lidge is about to throw the last pitch of the World Series - swing and a miss - and fall to his knees, arms thrust heavenward, baying to the moon, overwhelmed by what he has done, and about to be buried in a dog pile of celebrants.

That scene will live on forever.

But life has not been so kind or accommodating for Brad Lidge.

Remember Brad Lidge? Lights Out Lidge?

The Perfect Pitcher, remember? Well, perfect for a season anyway. The Ultimate Closer.

Forty-eight saves and not a single hiccup. Remember?

The most recent sighting finds him closing in on four years since that Enchanted Season, on Father's Day, on a major-league mound once again. Ah, but there is no dog pile welcoming committee waiting for him this time, just one man, Davey Johnson, the manager of the Washington Nationals, and he is plodding along purposefully and is clearly in no hurry because this is one of the more distasteful duties of a skipper, because at moments like this when you have to go get your pitcher you feel like an executioner taking the last mile.

This one carries extra bite because Lights Out Lidge isn't going to survive many more of these removals, and what makes it worse is that he is, by all accounts, a good man and true, deserving of a better fate, standing tall and without complaint.

The Nationals were the most recent way station in his search for redemption. Last January they signed him for one year for $1 million. Alas, he was entrusted with two appearances in two days last week and proceeded to blow them both, yielding five runs in one inning. In 11 appearances he had a 9.64 ERA and had started assorted bonfires, and the Nationals designated him for assignment, which translates thus: Don't call us, we'll call you.

Yet he remains positive, relentlessly so, and, it is tempting to say unreasonably so. But he has conducted himself with such grace and class, has borne up with such grit, you cannot bring yourself to puncture a dream. So, quietly and out of sight, you root for him.

And he is convinced the answer may come when he least expects it.

"Just keep throwing good pitches, quality pitches, and at some point those balls will get to people and we'll make outs," he said. "But until then you've just got to battle and keep throwing strikes."

It is the mantra of every sore-shouldered pitcher who ever worshiped at the shrine of St. Tommy John.

As for Lights Out Lidge, those who have preceded him in a slide to oblivion say they have learned that from the mountaintop, from that 48-0, it's a long, long way down.

And even longer back up.

It has all happened so fast. One baffling moment you're perfect and the next your body has betrayed you and you're in a rehab assignment buried in single A, where there is little more than pain and drudge and humiliation, haunted by the unspoken thought that what you are missing is gone, and won't be coming back.

The human shoulder and the elbow are wonders to behold. But when submitted to the violent, wrenching movements that are required to launch a baseball, and asked to do it over and over, eventually they rebel against all the abuse and go sproinggggg.

Bits of bone flake off and collect like a beaver's dam. Tendons fray and rupture. Ligaments stretch and stretch and stretch until they can stretch no more. Lights Out knows that dreary routine, knows that what is cut on - elbow and knees for him - does not come with a guarantee.

When his body was right, he was overpowering playing a position that allows no margin for error, upon whose bomb-defusing skills a win, or loss, pivot. Closers glory in that.

"Nothing quite like that rush," he said.

His put-away pitch was a killer slider. The ball looked inviting and eminently hittable as it left his hand, and then as the batter started to crank, it dived sharply. For the batter, too late. He committed and was left flailing impotently.

But for the hitter to be deceived, he must be seduced into thinking that what is coming is your garden variety 94-m.p.h. fastball. And that is what Lights Out cannot bring back to life. His fastball sputters in the high 80s, huffs and puffs to get into the 90s. The difference is slight, only a few clicks, but up there where the big boys play, a click or two is the difference between swing-and-a-miss, and that-ball-is-outta-here.

Brad Lidge is among the higher strikeouts-per-inning pitchers of all time, still believes someone will take a chance on him, still believes he can reach back into yesterday and resurrect glory past.

He has to believe that, of course, because otherwise it'll be, well, Lights Out.

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