The lights have gone out with the Washington Nationals for a pitcher who was once nicknamed "Lights Out." On Sunday, 35-year-old former All-Star Brad Lidge was designated for assignment as a result of a rocky season and some especially poor performances after coming back from hernia surgery.
Based on the performances they have seen from him this year (he finished with a 9.64 ERA and a 2.46 WHIP), many Nationals fans might not remember that Lidge was once an award-winning pitcher whose list of accolades rivals the baseball greats.
Lidge was the Houston Astros' first round pick in 1998 draft (17th overall). In just his second Major League season, he broke the National League record for most strikeouts by a reliever in a single season (2004, 157), and he still holds that record today. In 2005 and 2008 he was voted into the All Star Game, and he won three awards in 2008 (NL Comeback Player of the Year, NL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year, DHL Delivery Man of the Year). Also in 2008, he came in eighth place for NL MVP, and in fourth place for the NL Cy Young award. He was in good company in the nomination for the Cy Young Award: that year Johan Santana came in third, and CC Sabathia was fifth. Throughout his career, Lidge has recorded 225 saves, and he contributed to the Philadelphia Phillies' winning the 2008 World Series by not blowing a save through the whole regular season and postseason (48 saves).
However, Lidge failed to produce those kinds of quality performances for the Nationals, and past awards don't win ball games today. For a team that is fighting the kind of stiff competition that the Nats are to win their division, they had little choice but to let him go.
Lidge's first two appearances of the year were solid - both times he gave up just one hit, while allowing no runs to score and fanning two batters. But, his final two outings as a National were the polar opposite of the first: he faced 10 batters and allowed five earned runs on four hits and three walks (which works out to a 45.00 ERA for anyone wondering).
Those opposite sorts of outings became a trend for Lidge this season. In five of his 11 appearances he pitched a whole inning without allowing a run and striking out one or more batters. In four other appearances he allowed at least one run to score without recording a strike out. Now while strikeouts obviously aren't the only means by which to record an out, a definite pattern emerges when looking at Lidge's stats for the year: when he was on his game, batters couldn't hit him, and when he wasn't, it was like he was pulling first base out of the ground and handing it to them.
This pattern of inconsistent quality outings defined his tenure with the Nationals. Lidge would pitch really well two or three games in a row, and then blow a save in his next appearance. Just when you thought he was getting into a rhythm, he would fall apart again. Because unreliable and closer are two words that just can't go together, Lidge forced Rizzo to make a move for the good of the team.
If Lidge had been able to perform to his career standard, he would have been a killer addition to the Nationals' already stellar pitching staff. Baseball writer Joe Posnanski speaks to what an amazing pitcher Lidge once was: "In 2004, hitters swung and missed at Brad Lidge strikes almost 42% of the time. And if the ball was out of the strike zone, forget about it, they missed more than 70% of the time. I have no doubt that Brad Lidge, that one year, was one of the most unhittable pitchers in the history of baseball."
You can see why GM Mike Rizzo wanted him to be a part of this team, but at 35, which is past prime age in the baseball world, it seems that Lidge may never return to his former glory. It is possible that another team might look back at his highlight reel of a career and offer him another chance, but it is more likely he will go by way of retirement. While it is always a little sad to see a player's career end, or at least falter, the Nationals have to keep looking towards October, and only players who can deliver post-season quality performances will be a part of their journey towards the pennant.