NEW YORK -- If you're still one of the remaining Brad Lidge doubters, still sure that the majestic, moonshot of a home run he served up to Albert Pujols in the 2005 National League Championship briefly shattered his psych, consider this: Pujols wasn't even among those believers.

When he heard the Houston Astros were shopping Lidge, the Cardinals slugger sought out his long-time manager, Tony LaRussa.

"(People) were saying that I messed up Brad Lidge's mind or whatever, I don't think so -- I think he was strong in his mind," Pujols said Monday during All-Star week media availability at the Grad Hyatt in Manhattan. "I told our manager, if (Houston) doesn't want Brad Lidge, bring him here, bring him here to St. Louis."

Lidge, of course, never met Pujols in St. Louis. His story continued in Philadelphia, where his career is back on an All-Star track.

When the 79th All-Star Game gets underway tonight at Yankee Stadium, the new Phillies closer will take one more meaningful step on his road back to redemption. Cast off in Houston after a brief spell of ineffectiveness, Lidge will represent the Phillies and join the game's best players for the annual midsummer classic.

The 31-year-old closer, who signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract extension with the Phillies nine days ago, has arguably been the best closer in the National League in the first half of the season.

A perfect 20-for-20 in save opportunities, Lidge and New York Yankees All-Star Mariano Rivera are the only two regular closers in baseball without a blown save in 2008. Only Rivera (1.06) has a lower ERA than Lidge's 1.13.

"I really believed that I was going to have a good year going into this year," said Lidge, who came to the Phillies, along with Eric Bruntlett, in the November trade that sent Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary and minor league third baseman Michael Costanzo to the Astros.

"I didn't think I'd be getting off to this good of a start," Lidge continued. "But I felt like I'm going to pitch as good as I possibly can and well see what happens when I get there, and fortunately everything has worked out."

While skittish fans may be surprised at Lidge's dominance, his major league peers are not. For one, there's Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, who joins Lidge in New York this week.

Utley is 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, and one hit by pitch, in five plate appearances against Lidge.

"I didn't really realize what all the fuss was about," Utley said of the uncertainty that came along with Lidge to Philadelphia. "I had no success whatsoever against him, he was extremely tough...

"Once I heard that we got him I was extremely excited because, one, he's on our team

and he's going to be closing games for you and, two, I don't have to face him anymore."

Despite Lidge's last two seasons on Houston, when he was in and out of the closer's role, former Phillies closer Billy Wagner also wasn't surprised to see his former Astros' teammate find success in Philadelphia.

"It really isn't," said Wagner, a hard-charging, budding closer with Houston when Lidge joined the Astros bullpen. "His stuff speaks volumes... he's probably one of the best young closers in the game who has had his bump in the road, where he had to make adjustments and now he's one of the best...

"What Brad went through the last couple of years in Houston has led him to Philadelphia, where he more maybe mentally strong and he's able to go out there and handle some of the situations he maybe wasn't able to handle before."

The abbreviated Brad Lidge story goes something like this: From 2004 to 2005, the right-hander racked up 51 saves and struck out an astounding 260 batters in 165 1/3 innings.

His rise to being one of baseball's most dominant closers came crashing down, however, in the 2005 postseason. In Game 5 of he NLCS, with the Astros up 4-2 with two outs in the top of the ninth, Pujols launched a three-run home run into orbit.

Although the Astros still advanced to the World Series to take on the White Sox, Lidge gave up a walk-off, solo home run to Chicago's Scott Podsednik in Game 1. He also took the loss in Game 4, when the White Sox clinched the title.

"You're going to have days where you give it up; the best in the business have bad days," said Minnesota's Joe Nathan, who has racked up an American League-best 187 saves in the last five seasons. "The quicker you can turn around and let that go -- having talked to some of these guys, once they leave the clubhouse, it's behind them. Go home, spend time with your family, do whatever you do to get it out of your mind."

Although Lidge held on to his closer's job in 2006, his ERA -- never above 2.29 in his previous two seasons -- ballooned to 5.28. Although he was removed from the closer's role early in 2007, Lidge rediscovered his stuff midway through last summer.

Still, Houston was ready to move on.

Whether it was tipping pitches, regaining mechanics or overcoming adversity -- or a combination of all three -- Lidge found himself and a new home with the Phillies. His new contract ensures he'll be in red pinstripes through 2011 and included a team option for 2012.

"Somewhere along the way you get your focus back, the killer instinct back," Lidge said. "And I got that somewhere along the way last year... one thing that kind of went under the radar last year is I think I had probably the best stretch of my career.

"I wasn't closing, so I didn't have the saves to go along with it, but I felt going into this year I had got everything back last year, and the Phillies felt the same way -- they called and told me as much."

The Phillies still feel very good about Brad Lidge. His consistent, dominance in the back end of the bullpen has become a virus, infecting the rest of a relief corps that holds a 2.71 ERA at the All-Star break -- the best mark in baseball.

Lidge's revival may be surprising to some. But not one of his fellow All-Stars blinked when asked about the closer's return to form.

"Anyone who takes responsibility for their actions, take responsibility for their performance and has as much ability as Brad has, you feel pretty good about them righting the ship," said Astros first baseman Lance Berkman. "And he's done that."

Berkman watched with particular interest last Wednesday, when his former teammate was matched up against Pujols at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies led by two runs in the top of the ninth. At the plate, Pujols was the tying run.

"(Lidge) was down 2-0 and throws a fastball right down the middle and Albert pops it up to center field instead of hitting it out of the ballpark," Berkman said. "That's the kind of thing where this game, it happens in the game of baseball... he was trying to challenge (Pujols), and it worked out."

Pujols agreed, reflecting on the now-infamous home run that will forever link him with Lidge.

"It was a moment where a great closer against a great hitter and most of the time the closer is going to win," Pujols said. "That was a moment that I got a big hit against him.

"I'm just happy to see him back. I knew he was going to be okay (and) I know he'll be okay if he stays healthy for the rest of his career."

For more Phillies news, notes and observations, visit Ryan Lawrence's Phillies blog at:

comments powered by Disqus