The Houston Astros are sitting atop the NL Central with a 13-6 record, which is tied for the best record in the majors. However, after last night's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Maid Park, there seems to be a hint of panic in the air.
For those of you who missed it: with a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth inning, the 'Stros ace reliever, Brad Lidge, took the mound to try to earn the save. Instead, he loaded up the bases and then offered up a gopher ball to Nomar Garciaparra, who (grand) slammed it to left center field. The Dodgers ended up winning, 6-2. It was Lidge's first blown save of the season.
A disappointing way to lose, perhaps, every closer blows a save now and then, and Lidge still has seven saves under his belt - the most of any reliever in the majors - this season. So it's not really cause for concern, right?
Or is it?
As John Lopez writes in today's Chronicle, Brad Lidge is simply not the same intimidating pitcher he was just a year or so ago. His pitches don't have the same location, batters are getting to him with increasing frequency, and his ERA at this point in the season is 6.75, considerably worse than what it was at the end of last season (2.29) or in 2004 (1.90).
So what's going on? A popular hypothesis is that Lidge is still feeling the psychological reverberations of last October, when he gave up that mammoth three-run blast to Albert Pujols in game five of the NLCS, when the Astros were one out away from the World Series. Even though the Astros went on to beat the Cardinals in game six and advance to the World Series, having something like that happen to any closer in that situation has to be demoralizing. "The Pujols question will continue to hover over Lidge, at least in the near term. Amateur psychologists will wonder to what degree that seemingly devastating blown save affected Lidge," Lopez writes.
I don't really consider myself a psychologist, amateur or otherwise (although I do have a psych minor). In my years of watching sports, however, it's become obvious to me that two positions on which psychology has a huge effect are the place kicker in football and the closing pitcher in baseball. Perhaps it's due to the highly specialized nature of these jobs, and the fact that, so often, the outcome of the game is riding on the kicker's or the closer's shoulders. Get that last strike out, and you're the game-saving hero. Miss that last-second field goal attempt, and you're the game-blowing goat. In pressure-filled situations like this, maintaining a tough mental edge can't exactly be an easy thing to do. Why else would opposing coaches play psychological games like "icing" a field goal kicker by calling a time out right before the kick?
Is the mental aspect of his job getting to Lidge, as it has to other closers (the meltdown by once-dominant closer Mark Wohlers quickly comes to mind)? Lopez isn't the only Chronicle sportswriter who is expressing concern; Richard Justice is all over Lidge's problems (and how, perhaps, to fix them) in his blog.
I certainly don't know what the deal with Lidge is or how to fix it. Nor do I really know if there is cause for alarm yet. But I do know that Brad Lidge is key to the Astros' success. He was a big reason the Astros did as well as they did last year, and he's just as crucial a piece this year. The 'Stros just aren't going to get it done without him.
UPDATE: now it's two blown save opportunities in two nights for Brad Lidge. Ouch.