HOUSTON -- The Astros have won 20 of their last 21 games at Minute Maid Park, and Brad Lidge has saved 15 of those victories. No closer in Major League Baseball has been more successful since mid-August than him.
But nothing -- not even that save on the final Sunday of the regular season that clinched the National League Wild Card -- could compare to how it felt Saturday afternoon. There were 42,896 screaming, towel-waving fans and one Roger Clemens watching him close out a 5-2 victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
"It felt like the roof was going to blow off the top of the place," Lidge said.
This brought true meaning to the word "save." The pressure that ordinarily comes with a closer role was intensified by the fact that: (a) Houston was down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series; (b) Clemens had battled to go seven innings in what may or may not be the final start of his career; and (c) Lidge would have to get through all nine spots in the mighty St. Louis order over the final two innings.
Lidge struck out five of those nine batters, and that included pinch-hitter John Mabry, who represented the tying run. Minute Maid thundered, and the formula that the Astros wanted to see in this series finally was apparent in a box score:
"Lidge (S, 1)"
"You have to be real careful with those guys," Lidge said of the Cardinals. "They have a tremendous lineup. The guys in the ninth inning, too, obviously can hit the ball real well. So really 1 through 9 you have to be careful with them. I think the biggest thing for me was to go out and just not elevate any pitches."
It was a 3-2 Astros lead when Lidge replaced Clemens to start the eighth inning. He induced Tony Womack to line out to right, and then, after a procession of sliders, whiffed postseason-hot Larry Walker on 98-mph gas up high. Albert Pujols slapped a single to left, and then Lidge might have made his biggest pitch of the day: An 88-mph slider that Scott Rolen flailed at after 97- and 96-mph strikes.
Teammates gave Lidge what proved to be valuable cushion in the bottom of the inning, with solo homers from Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman. In the ninth, Jim Edmonds led off with a walk, Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders each took called third strikes, and then Lidge hit pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson with a pinch. Lidge was one home run away from a blown save, but Mabry had little chance -- three pitches and an 89-mph slider that kept Houston alive and brought down the house.
"It felt great," Lidge said. "I was happy to get innings today and happy to get through it. I needed to get out there and keep my arm in shape."
Lidge never saw an inning at Busch Stadium during the first games, as the Cardinals roughed up the Astro bullpen there. Some second-guessers even questioned why he had not been used in the eighth inning of Game 2 instead of Dan Miceli, who gave up a pair of decisive homers. But Lidge said he knew his time would come, and there was no question that he would come in right after Clemens instead of waiting for the ninth.
"Some games you're going to be needed for more than one inning and some games you're not," said Lidge, who assumed the closer role after Octavio Dotel was dealt to Oakland in the three-way July trade that also brought Beltran here. "I think with the days off, we have a few more days off during the postseason than we do during the regular season. It's just a matter of coming in when you need to be in the game."
Garner laughed when asked how it felt to finally be able to use Lidge.
"Well, it felt good in the eighth inning," he said. "I was beginning to worry toward the ninth inning. I looked at him struggle a little bit. I think it was good that he was in the game and that he got to get in the game. I think he was amped up a little bit in that ninth inning. He got the job done, that's important. He got in the ballgame, that's important, too. And we won it; that's the most important thing."
Brad Lidge / P
Weight: 210 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Everyone was talking about Clemens after this game, and count Lidge among them. To understand what that is like to save a game for a living legend, remember what happened to Juan Acevedo after he blew a save when Clemens tried for his 300th career victory in June 2003 at Wrigley Field. The Yankees let Acevedo go soon thereafter.
Lidge has a big-time future with the Astros, and he said he was inspired by Clemens on this day.
"Roger threw a fantastic game," Lidge said. "He had a few pitches early and then came back and does what he always does, gave us a huge effort. He's been picking us up all year. What can you say about him?"
Lidge said he would be available for Game 4. And whenever. "It's the playoffs," he said. "I'm not gonna sit down."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.