Inside the mind of Phillies closer Brad Lidge, there lies, well, who knows?
But on the outside, no matter how much sweat dripped off him on the mound during his epic, tortured run of blown saves this summer, or how much tiptoeing into the last three carefully staged opportunities of salvation granted him (we are saved!), Lidge has shown no signs of taking the roller-coaster ride personally, no signs of self-doubt.
No Charlie Brown depressive, Lidge has seemed a true zen goat (11 blown saves) sandwiched, for now, between two slices of hero - one epic (last season's perfection), one whose epicness is still, as they say, TBD.
"I trust myself," he said matter-of-factly after striking out the only batter he faced to clinch the series against the Rockies in Game 4 Monday night.
Ah, if only fans did, Brad.
During his slump, he said: "I was happy to get the opportunity to get in the game tonight. Anyone would want to get back in as fast as they can after a bad game."
Anyone? Tell that to the amateur warriers among us who have had a sport turn on them, awesome spin serves transformed into runs of double faults, no-problemo putts into existential nightmares. His confidence is truly impressive, whatever his results on the mound.
"Brad Lidge is probably one of the nicest guys on the team," says former Phillies pitcher Don Carman, 50, who pitched 10 seasons in the '80s and early '90s and once got tantalizingly, bottom-of-the-ninth close (but no cigar) to a perfect game. Carman, who lives in Tampa, Fla., now works as a sports psychology counselor, with 60 major-league players as clients this past season, though not Lidge.
Like another likeable tufted dude looking for answers (the Cowardly Lion), Lidge, Carman said, has a trait that will serve him well in the (hopefully near) future: courage. "It takes incredible courage to continue to go out there."
Carman counsels athletes to learn how to "hand over their ability to their subconsious." Similarly, Doylestown sports-performance hypnotist Todd Stofka suggests "reacquainting the subconsious with success" and "weeding out fear, anger and doubt."
But it's hard to look at Lidge and conclude he's a guy prone to middle-of-the-night bouts of overgrown anxiety - though a pro at producing a thicket of anxiety in fans still awake at 2:14 a.m., the time Lidge managed to get the last batter out in Game 3.
Lidge is nowhere near the stories of epic pitcher collapse, Carman says: "Lidge is one click on the dial from being great again. The ability is there. His courage is there."
For the true collapse case study, consider Steve Blass, the Pittsburgh Pirates hero who pitched two complete games in the 1971 Series and then inexplicably lost his ability to throw a strike two seasons later. Another incredibly nice guy like Lidge, he couldn't solve the puzzle and retired.
Yet, last month, Blass hit not one, but two holes-in-one in one round of golf in Florida - beating odds of 67 million to 1.
Philadelphia sports psychologist Joel Fish, who has counseled Phillies players in the past and currently works with Flyers, says the position of closer requires "unique mental skills" to maintain an "incredibly complicated balance of being ultra-competitive and still be able to be the calm in the midst of storm."
Despite Lidge's rocky season, Carman and Fish both think he has what it takes, personality-wise. He has shown he can handle the uncomfortable - excruciating? - feelings of his tortured season, something Carman says all slumping athletes must tolerate (whereas we less-enlightened fans take refuge under the couch pillow).
Call it learning from Lidge, as uncomfortable as that sounds.
Fish notes that the pitcher's comments to the media are "always straightforward . . . very grounded . . . recognizing that tomorrow's going to be a new day."
And, in fact, research by Penn psychologist Martin Seligman has found correlations between optimism - explaining losses as temporary, specific, and not their fault - and future wins on professional sports teams.
Now, that may not explain 11 blown saves, but it might be cause for, well, optimism.
Does a fan dare to take the Lidge bobblehead out of hiding?
Fish says Lidge has another piece of the puzzle in place: the love and support of his manager and teammates. "You don't have to be Freud to see this team has a tremendous chemistry," Fish says.
Then there's Charlie Manuel, who has stubbornly played the role of Brad's ever-encouraging dad from the dugout. Manuel has set up little situations where his beloved Brad can feel successful, like the Sept. 30 game, when the Phils clinched the division and Lidge, in one pitch, got to act out the whole hero scenario.
Other psychologist-slash-Phillies fans aren't buying it. At a certain point, the skeptic that is endemic in even the post-championship Phillies fan takes over.
"How much did he pitch?" sports psychologist Jerry Cimmet of Fort Washington asks, with a wee bit of Philadelphia sarcasm laced into psychological insight. "Less than a full inning. . . . He's biting his lips, hoping for some spiritual rescue. They're building up his confidence, trying to trigger him back into the zone. Last year was something magical. The team believed. This year, who knows?"
Ah, last year. The little matter of perfection, a tricky sort of thing for those lucky ones who flirt with it.
Ask Don Carman, who can detail the unraveling of his perfect game. (The pitch was "away but up," and Bob Brenly's hit dropped between two outfielders who are still apologizing.) But also his recovery: "I told myself, keep making pitches." And Mike Schmidt's on-the-mound advice: "Throw a strike and get out of the way."
He did, shortstop Steve Jeltz made a diving stop, threw to Schmidt for the out. The Phils won it in the 10th.
The rest is sports psychology history.
Yes, perfection can be a burden, achieved, nearly achieved, and the aftermath of both. Which might lead to an awkward question: Which is the real Brad Lidge, the glory or the goat? As writer Colin Bowles put it, describing what happens after you hit a perfect golf stroke: ". . . When you've done it once, you make the fundamental error of asking yourself why you can't do this all the time," he wrote. "The answer to this question is simple: the first time was a fluke."
Just kidding, Brad! Now throw a strike and get out of the way.