Closer matchup reflects playoff perfection
Rivera, Lidge yet to blow a single save this postseason
NEW YORK -- With no disrespect intended toward Brad Lidge, few likely could have found anyone brave enough -- or perhaps crazy enough -- to predict three weeks ago that on the eve of the World Series, there could be a comparison drawn between the once-reeling Phillies reliever and Mariano Rivera, one of the finest postseason performers ever.
The 2009 Major League season has boiled down to two teams, each of which has a closer -- yes, Lidge is one of them -- who stands virtually unscathed this month. And in a postseason in which closers have bore the brunt of the late-inning dramatics that have transpired, that's saying a heck of a lot.
Maybe it's no coincidence that the two closers not to blow a save in the postseason are the only two whose seasons have not yet ended. Rivera and Lidge -- one of whom is trying to emulate his storied postseason past, the other trying not to emulate a thing that happened during the regular season -- are the last two standing, as they have done their jobs in a way that Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Brian Fuentes, Huston Street and Ryan Franklin could not.
There have been a total of 11 blown saves in 24 postseason games this year. Lidge and Rivera have avoided attaching their names to any of them.
Still, it's not all similarities when dissecting these two closers. Rivera has made his career essentially with the use of a single pitch -- his trademark cutter. Lidge thrives on a fastball-slider combo.
For Rivera, October has become his time to shine. He has 37 career postseason saves, nine of which have come in the World Series. Both of those totals rank first all-time. His 0.77 ERA in 84 postseason appearances is the lowest among all relievers with at least 40 innings pitched. And he has a World Series MVP Award, in 1999, to his credit already, too.
|"I'm back into that locked-in approach, where you know what pitch you want to make before you even throw it. I feel a lot like I did last year at this same time."|
|-- Brad Lidge|
"I cannot say enough about how he has been the best relief pitcher in postseason [history]," said Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who has caught Rivera in 25 different postseason series. "He has been the best closer ever. Every time he steps up to the mound, you see it. I don't think we would be in this situation without Mariano Rivera. I don't think we have four world championship rings without Mariano Rivera."
Even Rivera's counterpart offered similarly effusive praise.
"Everyone would probably fall short of trying to describe how great he's been in the postseason," Lidge said. "When you think of him in the postseason, all you think about is success. To continue to be as dominant as he has been each time is pretty spectacular."
So far this postseason, Rivera has allowed one earned run in 10 2/3 innings. His 11 strikeouts have bumped his career postseason total to 104, and he's secured another three saves. Yet, he insists the experience of the Fall Classic -- this is his seventh -- is still as fresh as the first.
"You're talking about the World Series," Rivera said. "When you talk about the World Series, it's the ultimate. I won't take it for granted. This one is just like the first one. It's the World Series. It's as simple as that."
Lidge isn't exactly short on playoff experience. He's pitched in 10 postseason series since 2004, and he saved seven of the Phillies' 11 wins on the way to a World Series title last year. This year, however he stumbled into October on the heels of a tumultuous season.
As the year progressed, there were regular calls for him to be removed from the closer's role. And there were questions as to how a 7.21 ERA over 67 regular-season games would translate into postseason success.
But with four scoreless innings and three saves in the Phillies' first two series wins, Lidge has been as good these past few weeks as he has at any point all year.
"I feel like I'm in a pretty good spot right now," he said. "I'm back into that locked-in approach, where you know what pitch you want to make before you even throw it. I feel a lot like I did last year at this same time."
The timing, as far as the Phillies are concerned, couldn't be better.
"He's been outstanding for us," said Chase Utley. "Even near the end of the year, it seemed like he got into a good groove and a good rhythm. He's obviously important for us."
What has sparked Lidge's sudden effectiveness? It lies mostly with his health, the right-hander insisted. The right knee injury that landed Lidge on the disabled list in June -- shortly after he blew two saves in a three-game Interleague Series at Yankee Stadium -- has finally subsided, allowing Lidge to push off his back leg more comfortably now than at any other point during the season.
"I remember when I was pitching in that series [against the Yankees] thinking, 'OK, mechanically what can I do when I get out there to make sure my knee isn't hurting? Where is the ball going to end up?'" said Lidge, who gave up four earned runs in 1 1/3 innings against New York back in May. "Then, the focus was on what was bothering me. Now I can focus on the task at hand. It does feel kind of like a different season for me."
In the end, this series might just come down to Rivera versus Lidge and whether either can stay postseason perfect. How fitting, then, it is that no pitchers have been on the mound to get the last out of a postseason series more often than the two of them. Rivera has done it 13 times, Lidge, 6.
Each is now poised to add to that total, well aware of exactly what it could mean.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.