Baseball: Clemens headlines annual banquet
Joe Hettler | Friday, February 11, 2005
When he left school after the 1998 fall semester, Brad Lidge expected to return to Notre Dame much sooner than Thursday. But between then and now, his life changed in a couple ways.
“I’ve wanted to get back to Notre Dame quite a bit,” Lidge said Thursday before flying into South Bend. “But for one reason or another I’ve kind of been bogged down by baseball, and my wife and I just had a baby this winter too. So there have been a few things that have prevented me from coming back.”
Things like pitching in Major League Baseball. Things like becoming one of the dominant closers in the National League last season. Things like leading the Houston Astros into the National League Championship Series.
All these “things” have kept Lidge busy during the past six-plus years. But Thursday, the 1998 Big East Pitcher of the Year returned to South Bend to speak at the fourth-annual Notre Dame baseball Opening Night Dinner. He was joined by seven-time Cy Young Award-winner and teammate, Roger Clemens and Notre Dame head football coach, Charlie Weis.
“It’s a real honor for me to come back here and I just couldn’t pass this up,” Lidge said. “Coach [Paul] Mainieri and myself have a great relationship and he knows he can always ask me for stuff like this and I’ll gladly accept.”
Lidge said he learned a great deal from Notre Dame’s head baseball coach of the past 10 seasons, and that Mainieri helped him develop mentally.
“I’ve learned a ton from him,” Lidge said. “As a freshman I was kind of mentally soft, and he talk me a lot about mental toughness, about grinding it out on the baseball field and that even when you don’t have your best stuff to believe in yourself.”
The advice worked. Lidge was the 17th overall pick in the 1998 amateur draft and made his major league debut on April 26, 2002. The Sacramento, Calif. native threw in just eight games, yielding six earned runs. Lidge bounced back the next season and posted solid numbers as a set-up man, logging 85 innings in 78 games and tallying a 6-3 record with a 3.60 ERA. He struck out 97 while walking just 42.
But it wasn’t always easy for Lidge. During his speech Thursday, the former Irish player recalled having four surgeries in four years and sometimes wondering if he would ever stay healthy for an extended period of time. But whenever Lidge had doubts, he remembered what he learned during his time at Notre Dame.
“I always thought that I would get stronger from adversary and maybe I’m starting at a point where I can get better and come back stronger from these injuries,” Lidge said. “I feel like I did.”
Lidge’s success in 2003 dwarfed in comparison to his 2004 season. Lidge, whose slider is one of the nastiest in baseball, was the primary set-up reliever for closer Octavio Dotel when the season began. But Dotel struggled and the Astros underachieved for much of the first half of the season. On June 24, Houston traded the inconsistent Dotel and promoted Lidge to the closer’s role.
“When I first heard about it, it was actually in the fifth inning of the game we were in,” Lidge said. “Octavio normally comes down to the bullpen during the fourth inning, and he hadn’t come down yet. They called me down and said ‘Brad, we just traded Octavio, you’re closing.’ So not a whole lot of warning there, but it actually gave me so much adrenaline I couldn’t sit down for the next week.”
Lidge then went out and made the Astros front office look like geniuses.
He finished the regular season with a 6-5 record, converted 29 saves and had a miniscule 1.90 ERA. His dominance continued after Houston earned a playoff berth. Lidge pitched in seven postseason games and allowed just one run, earning a victory and saving three during his 12 1/3 innings of work.
Lidge will begin another season in the majors in a few days when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Despite all his success, Lidge said he has no plans of getting a big ego.
“It’s an honor for me to play in the major leagues,” Lidge said. “I can tell you, I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”