10/05/2004 8:55 PM ET
Molony: Lidge brings lethal slider
Closer's emergence and wicked pitch has fueled Astros
|Brad Lidge will pit his slider against that of one of the best closers in the game, Atlanta's John Smoltz. (David J. Phillip/AP)
ATLANTA -- Cincinnati slugger Adam Dunn called it nasty and said it ought to be illegal.
Colorado's Todd Helton said it was "absolutely filthy."
Moises Alou of the Chicago Cubs described it with a word unsuitable for a family Web site.
A lot of hitters have adjectives for Astros closer Brad Lidge's slider, but so far no answers on how to hit the elusive pitch. The 27-year-old's emergence has been a key in Houston's sprint to the playoffs and the reason some observers are optimistic about the Astros' chances against the Braves.
This much is certain: With Lidge and John Smoltz of the Braves waiting in the bullpens to try to close out games, the outcome of this National League Division Series could come down to which team is better able to overcome the other closer's awesome slider. In Smoltz and Lidge, this series will see arguably the two best right-handed sliders in the league.
"It's probably one of the hardest sliders in the game," Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones said of Lidge's pitch. "Those guys like Lidge and Smoltz, who throw 88- or 90-mph sliders, the ball comes out of their hand looking like a fastball and then drops off the table. Anytime you have a guy who can throw an offspeed pitch that hard, it makes it doubly tough."
The last time Houston faced Atlanta in the playoffs, Smoltz finished all three games and picked up two saves as the Braves completed a sweep in 2001. Lidge has never appeared in a playoff game.
"He's awesome," Jones said of Lidge. "I think he's really come into his own this year. He's probably one of the biggest reasons that they are where they are.
"He's not one of those guys that's just relegated to the ninth inning. He's come into games in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings and closes games out for them. He's been dominating all season. Hopefully, we won't see him."
Lidge was little known outside of Houston until this season, when he inherited the closer's role following the trade of Octavio Dotel to Oakland in late June. Last year, he was usually used in the seventh inning, with Dotel taking over the eighth and Billy Wagner, now closing for Philadelphia, pitching the ninth.
Lidge took over the setup role this spring and was even more effective than he was last season, when he fanned 97 in 85 innings. The Notre Dame graduate and former first-round draft choice (1998) had to overcome numerous injuries on the way to Houston, but in fact the injuries are what convinced the Astros to teach Lidge the slider.
"He had that over-the-top curveball that had caused injury problems," Houston assistant GM Tim Purpura said.
The curve kept causing Lidge to break down. Elbow tendinitis, a right medial collateral ligament sprain, an elbow sprain and fractured ulna were among a few of the maladies that sidelined Lidge his first two years in the organization.
In 2000, the Astros went to Lidge and convinced him to ditch the curve in favor of the slider. With his high-90s fastball, one good breaking pitch could mean everything. As proof, Purpura tore a page out of the San Francisco media guide, the one with Robb Nen, and highlighted all the injury problems Nen had gone through earlier in his career.
"We convinced Brad to ditch the curveball and throw the slider. It's not nearly as taxing, physically," Purpura said. "Nen had been through much worse than Brad and he obviously went on to do very well."
Mike Scott's learning the split-fingered fastball in the early 1980s made Houston a playoff team, and without Lidge's wicked slider, this Houston team wouldn't be here either.
"Other than J.R. Richard, we haven't had anyone in this organization with such a dominating, devastating slider like Lidge's," Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker said.
You might remember Richard, a 6-foot-8 right-hander, who had a 100-mph fastball and a slider that was harder to hit. He led the league in strikeouts in 1978-79, topping 300 each year. Richard intimidated batters and made them look foolish with his slider.
Lidge, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, is quickly earning a reputation because of his slider. He led the league in strikeouts by a reliever (157 in 94 2/3 innings) and converted 22-of-24 save opportunities after the break. Lidge was particularly dominating during Houston's 23-7 run to the finish line, striking out 37 of the last 70 batters he faced.
"From the day he started throwing that slider in a Florida State League game a couple of years ago, it was easy to see, with that pitch and his fastball, he had closer written all over him," Hunsicker said. "That pitch came so easy for him. He threw that first one and it was, 'Whoa, what have we got here?' "
Lidge is aware of the Houston bullpen's problems in past Octobers and doesn't believe anything that happened before will have a bearing on his game. After all the injuries, he's just glad to be here and will take his chances with his slider against the Braves.
"It's been a winding road, I'm obviously thrilled to be where I'm at with this team," Lidge said. "I can't think about doing anything differently, and I'd never compare myself to John Smoltz. He's been doing this for a long time and this is really the first year for me. All I want to do is keep doing what I've been doing up to now."
For Lidge, that's three things: strikeouts, saves and making tongues wag.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com based in Houston. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.