One out from clinching the Astros’ first World Series berth in Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series, Brad Lidge threw a slider that didn’t quite slide in Houston. At the plate, the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols launched a three-run, go-ahead homer that sent the series back to St. Louis.

As the Astros boarded their charter flight the next day, still leading the NLCS 3-2, catcher Brad Ausmus asked Houston traveling secretary Barry Waters to tell the pilot to deliver an unusual message over the PA system once the aircraft reached 30,000 feet.

The pilot blanched, then balked.

Frustrated, Ausmus took matters into his own hands, approaching the cockpit and telling the pilot: “Listen, just say it. If there are any problems, I’ll deal with it.”

And so, sure enough, when the charter flight reached its desired cruising altitude, the PA crackled to life, and the Astros listened to their pilot announce:

“We’ve reached 30,000 feet, and if you look out the windows to the left, you can see the baseball Albert Pujols hit last night still in full flight.”

Dead. Silence.

Then uproarious laughter.

Tension. Broken.

“Put it this way,” Lidge, now an analyst for MLB Network Radio, told Bleacher Report during a recent phone conversation. “We’re talking about this because this is such an important aspect of what happened: If you don’t have teammates who love you…I could have been sitting there stewing in my own anger for a long time.

“But as soon as that’s said, at first I remember for about 30 seconds I was so pissed off at the pilot, I was about to run up and choke him. Then I thought about it, I realized it was Ausmus [who put him up to it], and I exhaled for the first time. I realized these guys had my back.”

Blown late-inning leads have been a part of baseball since the first ninth-inning comeback more than a century ago.

The rise and fall of closers in the age of bullpen specialization and in front of national-television audiences and scathing social media critics, seemingly, has been going on for just about as long.

And as surely as you wolf down the leftover Halloween candy at home, it happens every October.

On that grand postseason stage, there is absolutely, positively no overexaggerating the agony, shock, misery, despair, depression and sheer volume of atmospheric pressure that accompanies a blown save.

You think the baggage of letting down a guy’s entire team, manager, coaching staff, friends, fanbase, city, state and acquaintances simply remains at sea level? Think again.

Not every team is as lucky as those Astros, who can look back fondly on those heartbreaking losses with the knowledge they eventually won that series in six games to get to the World Series.

Baltimore manager Buck Showalter and starter-turned-reliever Ubaldo Jimenez will not have that chance after losing this year’s AL Wild Card Game to Toronto. Showalter instead has the winter to think about leaving closer Zach Britton on ice in the bullpen, while for Jimenez, there will be no game in which to atone for the mess he created until next April. 

Nor will there be for San Francisco’s Derek Law, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Will Smith, all of whom have fingerprints on the Giants’ stunning ninth-inning collapse Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs.

Dennis Eckersley was still answering questions about surrendering Kirk Gibson’s 1988 Game 1 World Series home run all the way to his Hall of Fame induction in 2004. Neftali Feliz declined to answer questions after blowing Game 6 of the 2011 World Series after he and his Texas Rangers were just one strike from clinching what would have been their first World Series title.

Even the greatest closer ever, New York’s Mariano Rivera, has three epic October disasters mixed in among his five World Series rings: Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Arizona, Games 4 and 5 of a historic 2004 ALCS loss to Boston and Game 4 of the ALDS against Cleveland in 1997.

The psychological toll has turned sad, and even tragic, in some cases. Atlanta’s Mark Wohlers, an All-Star in 1996, was beaten in Game 4 of that year’s World Series against the New York Yankees by a Jim Leyritz home run. Two years later, he lost his command of the strike zone, and his career disintegrated. Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams famously yielded Joe Carter’s Game 6 homer in the 1993 World Series in Toronto and was out of baseball soon thereafter.

And three years after moving to within one strike of pitching the Angels into the World Series in 1986, closer Donnie Moore committed suicide, still haunted by his October failure, his agent said at the time.

“Ever since he gave up the home run to Dave Henderson, he was never himself again,” Dave Pinter, Moore’s agent of 12 years, told Elliott Almond and Mike Penner of the Los Angeles Times after Moore’s death in 1989. “He blamed himself for the Angels not going to the World Series. He constantly talked about the Henderson home run.”

The tragedy of Moore and the laughter on that Houston flight are extremes for closers who go through the meat grinder that is October.

Most who fail on a given night find the experience somewhere between agonizing and uncomfortable, though few situations are as excruciating as what Arizona’s Byung-Hyun Kim went through in 2001.

With the Diamondbacks leading New York in the World Series 2-1, Kim surrendered a bottom-of-the-ninth, game-tying, two-run home run to Tino Martinez in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium. Then, in the bottom of the 10th, Derek Jeter smashed a walk-off homer against Kim.

The very next night, with Arizona leading 2-0 into the bottom of the ninth, Kim served up a stunning, game-tying home run to Scott Brosius in a game the Diamondbacks would lose in the 12th inning.

Bronx lightning blasted Kim three times in 24 hours.

Anybody in Yankee Stadium or watching on television those nights will never forget it.

“It was just, boy, that was a tough one, I wish we wouldn’t have lost that game, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, God, the series is over, we’re gagging this,'” Arizona television analyst Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks manager in that World Series, told Bleacher Report. “That never entered my mind, and I don’t think it ever entered any of the players’ minds, either.”

There is no all-encompassing blueprint regarding how to cope with a blown save, and that extends to the manager’s office. Brenly, in hindsight, learned something about how to set a tone following Jeter’s Game 4 home run. 

“I probably didn’t do things to help matters much in New York,” Brenly said. “I was pissed at Jeter’s home run because it went [something like] 218 feet. It would have been a routine fly ball in any other ballpark.”

As the players started undressing following the difficult loss, they could hear Brenly cussing in the manager’s office.

“It kept coming at me in waves,” Brenly said. “I can’t believe that ball got out of here! It was a routine fly ball! I started kicking things.”

It was then that veteran infielder Jay Bell popped into Brenly‘s office, and the manager realized his players might think he was blaming them. So he quickly stepped into the middle of the clubhouse to say a few words and “let the guys know this has nothing to do with them, and it’s got everything to do with this ballpark.”

“We weren’t happy, either,” Mark Grace, the first baseman on that team, said. “Nobody was happy. Bob’s a guy that when he’s pissed off, he likes to throw s–t. Jay’s more of a kinder, gentler, dadgummit kind of guy. But they’re still great competitors. Just different. I had no problem with any of that.”

The next night, in the ninth inning of Game 5, there was nothing cheap about Brosius‘ home run. It was stunning, given what had happened to Kim just 24 hours earlier.

“This guy threw the ball every day,” Brenly said, still wincing at what Kim had to endure. “We caught him in the shower one day earlier in the season, naked, going through his pitching motion. We had to tell the bat boys and the ball boys, ‘Don’t play catch with him anymore.’ He’d take them out behind the outfield fence. He was always, always throwing.

“His resiliency was never an issue. I had no problem pitching him three days in a row.”

By the time Brosius‘ ball left Yankee Stadium in Game 5, though, Kim’s season was finished, and his psyche was shattered.

Grace and Arizona shortstop Tony Womack reached the mound about the same time, just before catcher Rod Barajas, and practically before Brosius‘ home run crash-landed into the old Yankee Stadium seats. Tenderly, Grace cradled Kim’s head with a hand.

“When you saw the devastation that happened to that young man, all of a sudden, at least for a little while, the game was no longer important,” Grace said. “The human being was more important than the game.

“At that moment, a young man was on the mound devastated, a very proud young Korean man trying to do his country proud and everyone else proud.”

Kim spoke very little English, mostly needing an interpreter to communicate even with his teammates that season. What Grace did with his body language, though, was universal.

“It was more, ‘Hey, man, the game’s not over, it’s just tied. It’s OK,'” Grace said, before adding with a chuckle: “I probably also said, ‘Will you stop giving up home runs, for Chrissake?’

“I think he understood, in so many words, that I’m letting him know we’re still in your corner, we still believe in you. But he was so done at that time that I could have told him there was a party at my house and he wouldn’t have cared.”

Through an interpreter that night, Kim let Brenly know that he felt he had let the team down and disappointed everybody. Back through the interpreter, Brenly told Kim that the pitcher had earned the right to have a bad night or two, that the team would not be in the World Series without him and to be ready for the next time.

Of course, there would be no next time. Not in 2001, at least. Arizona went on to win Games 6 and 7, but Kim, wrecked, did not pitch. In fact, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, after starting and throwing seven innings in Game 6, came back the next night on no rest and finished the game, working 1.1 innings while Kim looked on.

“I was real proud of the way the guys on the team handled it,” Brenly said of Kim’s Game 5 blowup. “Gracey going to the mound, Barajas getting to the mound quickly. You know, they really rallied around him at that moment out on the mound, in front of everybody.

Circumstances. They seem to ambush closers often in the Bronx in October. Or, at least, in old Yankee Stadium.

In 2009, the Minnesota Twins had a core of young players who were sure they could take down the Yankees. Then, after losing Game 1 of the ALDS, they took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning of Game 2 when closer Joe Nathan surrendered a leadoff single to Mark Teixeira and a game-tying homer to Alex Rodriguez.

Nathan produced 47 saves that season, and that was the first home run he had allowed all year with a man on base. Twisting the knife, Minnesota’s Joe Mauer had a leadoff double in the 11th inning taken away when umpire Phil Cuzzi ruled that the ball was foul. Replays showed the ball clearly landed in fair territory, except, well, those were the days before replay could reverse calls. The Yankees wound up winning in the bottom of the 11th on a Teixeira home run and closed out the Twins in Game 3.

Seven years later, that moment remains high-def for Nathan, who is now with the San Francisco Giants.

“I fell into a count,” he said of the A-Rod at-bat. “It was a 3-1 count, you’re on the mound and your first thought is that if I walk him, I’m in more trouble, so let’s play the percentages.”

“You feel bad because you think you let your teammates down,” Nathan said, echoing Lidge. “The teams that I’ve been on that have had the most success, the ones where you probably get the most success out of your teammates and yourself, are the teams that you know the guys have your back 100 percent no matter what happens. The times you come out and you know they want you on the hill in that situation when it comes up again.

“As bad as you want to get it done for your teammates for a win, sometimes it’s more important to know they’ve got your back no matter what happens.”

Closers who suffer on the October stage must keep in mind one of former manager Jim Leyland’s favorite phrases: Hey, the other guys drive Cadillacs, too.

Meaning: At this level, everybody is pretty darned good. There is no shame in getting beaten every now and again. It’s going to happen.

Especially when opposing hitters can smell a weakness.

“I think probably, at some level, we felt good about our chances of scoring,” Paul Molitor, the MVP of the 1993 World Series and current Minnesota manager, said of ambushing Williams in a three-run ninth inning that snatched the title away from Philadelphia in ’93. “Mitch had had a great year and was a huge reason why they were where they were. But it wasn’t like he was a guy who had been a top-end closer for seven or eight years.

“It all came together for him that year, and I think we all thought he was a little tired and his velocity was down from what we had heard earlier in the year. And we had come back to beat him earlier [in Toronto’s epic 15-14 Game 4 win], so you kind of feel that we’ve got a chance. And you combine that with the lineup we were running up there against him. It was not so much even Mitch Williams on the mound, it was this is who we are and we have a good chance.

“But I think once you overcome a deficit late against a guy, it certainly gives you more confidence the next time.”

And once those hitters start undressing a closer, well, let’s just say it’s pretty hard to hide when you’re standing on the mound like the emperor with no clothes.

Kim did survive to collect 36 saves for Arizona in 2002, and he wound up pitching in the majors through 2007 for three other organizations. But the overwhelming memory of him is standing, shattered, on that Yankee Stadium mound.

“He’s back in Korea,” Brenly said. “He played a little professional ball there. I don’t know what he’s doing now. We have an alumni game every year. I wouldn’t expect him to jump a plane from Korea back to Phoenix, but it would be nice to see him one year if he felt like coming back.”

Lidge said: “The way things are blown up, they take on a life of their own. That’s what makes closer such a high-risk, high-reward position. I felt the extremes of all sides.”

The Astros won Game 6 of the 2005 NLCS in St. Louis, 5-1, so Lidge’s next appearance after Pujols was not until he faced the Chicago White Sox in Game 2 of the World Series.

There, working the bottom of the ninth in Chicago in a 6-6 game, Lidge served up a one-out home run to Scott Podsednik to suffer another loss. At that point, the Astros became concerned for Lidge’s mental state.

“Honestly, that one didn’t bother me,” Lidge said. “I think the reality of baseball kicked in. He was a left-handed hitter, he had no home runs during the year, it’s a [2-1] count, so of course I’m going to throw him a strike. That one didn’t bother me, honestly.

“I think, too, you have enough baseball knowledge as a player in the game to know when you made a mistake, and that’s when it’s on you.”

Three years later in 2008, having signed with Philadelphia as a free agent, Lidge was perfect, converting 41 of 41 save opportunities during the regular season and seven of seven during the postseason. The last of those came in Game 5 of the World Series as the Phillies won only the second title in club history.

Still remembering the pain of the Pujols homer, Ausmus was watching with a jittery stomach during a getaway trip with his wife to Las Vegas. Relieved, he sent a congratulatory text to his buddy right after the final out.

“I was worried that he had had this perfect season and now he was going to blow that game,” Ausmus said. “But he didn’t. Brad’s one of the better guys I’ve ever played with.”

Maybe that’s why the joke years before about Pujols’ home run being visible outside the windows of the Astros charter flight worked.

Or maybe it was something a little simpler.

“I wasn’t worried about it backfiring,” Ausmus deadpanned. “I was going to laugh at it. I was going to find it funny.”

A decade later, even in the comfort of his own home, October’s late innings still make Lidge sweat.

“Sometimes I’ll be watching a playoff game and things are getting hairy and I’ll tell my wife, ‘I’ve gotta go get some beers to relax,'” Lidge said. “I think, honestly, and I’ve talked to other closers about this—Trevor Hoffman, Eckthey say there’s a fraternity of closers, if you’re lucky enough to be in that position, you’re going to have ones that don’t go right. We’re all going to feel for each other.

“The rest of my life, I will understand what it’s like to be in that situation. And fortunately, I’ll be able to feel the joy of success and the other side forever.”

In his office at home hang two enlarged, framed pictures. One shows him in the aftermath of Pujols’ crushing home run in ’05, while the other features him triumphant on the field as the Phillies rush out to celebrate their World Series title.

Sometimes, when the moment is right, he will point out the photos to his 11-year-old daughter Avery and his seven-year-old son Rowan.

“Hey,” he tells them. “Sometimes in life, you’re going to face challenges. And when you do, you can come out on the other side better for it.”

Picture—and pitcherperfect.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on