Commentary

Stop the presses: Cliff Lee is mortal

Ace's air of postseason invincibility tarnished in Rangers' Game 1 defeat

Originally Published: October 27, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Barry Bonds grabs the public address microphone and tells a stunned AT&T Park crowd, "Yes, it's all true! I juiced!"

Tim Lincecum gets a buzz cut between innings.

Bengie Molina runs a 4.2 40.

Then -- and only after each of these things happened -- would I ever believe what I saw in Game 1 of the World Series.

Cliff Lee lost.

Not just lost, but lost his control, his aura, his intimidation factor. And because Lee picked the exact wrong night to be human, the Texas Rangers lost an opportunity and the all-important first game of the Series, 11-7.

The same guy who had previously wrestled the postseason to the ground was a no-show Wednesday evening. From invincible to mere mortal in less than three hours.

"I was missing with fastballs," he said. "Missing with cutters. The changeup wasn't really there. The curveball was decent. It was one of those nights where I was trying to find it the whole time."

It was a shocking admission by someone who hasn't missed a pitch in weeks. He entered the game with postseason perfection in his back pocket: 3-0, 0.75 ERA, one walk in 24 innings of playoff work in 2010 … 7-0, 1.26 ERA for his career. The left-hander was the closest thing to a sure thing in this series.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Scott Rovak/US PresswireCliff Lee gave up six earned runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings.

But Lee didn't make it through the fifth inning. By the time he was pulled with two outs, Lee had thrown 104 pitches, given up seven runs (six earned), eight hits, hit a batter and -- gasp! -- walked someone. I don't know who was more surprised, the Rangers or the San Francisco Giants.

"We faced a great pitcher tonight, and he wasn't quite on top of his game," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

Bochy was being polite. Lee wasn't on top of his game; he was below it. Only 69 of his pitches were thrown for strikes. He didn't close out at-bats like he usually does. Give the Giants credit for some of that (and Lee did, repeatedly, as he stood in front of his locker afterward), but Lee's command was iffy, at best.

"I think he's been so consistent that … everybody has a tendency to just think that when he goes out there it's going to be the same," said Rangers president Nolan Ryan.

Can you blame us? Lee had been so good for so long that the extraordinary became ordinary.

Rangers manager Ron Washington put on the postgame brave face, but he still looked like he wanted to jump into McCovey Cove. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees were reconsidering their $400 billion free agent offer to Lee.

Even the unflappable Lee appeared to be slightly dazed by the flat performance. After he was pulled by Washington in the fifth, he sat in the dugout, his head bathed in sweat, just staring straight ahead.

Maybe it was the eight days between starts. Maybe it was the Giants. Or maybe it was simply time for Lee to semi-stink it up.

"I missed out over the plate," he said. "Professional hitters hit that stuff."

When the Rangers handed him a 2-0 lead after 1» innings, you figured that would be more than enough. That's how much Lee had spoiled everyone. A two-run lead for Lee was like a 10-run lead for anybody else. Or so we (and the Rangers) thought.

But the Giants scored a run in the bottom of the third on a Freddy Sanchez RBI double. Then they scored six more runs in the fifth, thanks to another Sanchez RBI double (he had three doubles on the night), an RBI single by Babe Ru--, er, Cody Ross, an RBI single by Aubrey Huff and a game-breaking three-run dinger by Juan Uribe. Lee didn't give up the home run, but he was on the hook for two of those runs.

"For me, I've got to do a better job with some damage control in the fifth inning," Lee said. "Somehow getting out there without giving up, what, six runs they scored in that inning? That's not acceptable for me, but you've got to give credit to their hitters."

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Eric GayCliff Lee exited after giving up four hits and a rare walk in the fifth inning.

Anyway, Lee combusted. The flustered Rangers, suddenly without their pitching security blanket, followed his lead.

Rangers right fielder (cough, cough) Vladimir Guerrero, making a rare start in the field, committed two gruesome errors and generally looked like a DH hoping and praying nobody would hit the ball toward him. But they did and Guerrero, creaky knees and all, stabbed at the hits as though someone had sprayed Mace in his eyes.

"A couple of balls got by him," said Washington, who made it clear he wasn't going to pull Guerrero from the lineup.

Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler got tagged out after taking too big of a turn at first.

Rangers third baseman Michael Young booted a ball for an error. So did shortstop Elvis Andrus.

The Texas bullpen gave up four runs.

"It's not too often you make four errors and win a ballgame," Ryan said.

If you're Ryan and the Rangers, you tell yourself that it's only Game 1.

"You know," he said, "this is just Game 1. That's the way we have to look at it."

See?

The Rangers have suffered first-game beatdowns before. They had a 5-0 lead against the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALCS and lost, 6-5. Then they won four of the next five games and eliminated the defending world champions.

But history says they don't have the same margin of error in the World Series. The Game 1 winner has won six of the past seven and 11 of the past 13 championships.

The Rangers get a second chance Thursday night. Another left-hander, C.J. Wilson, faces the Giants' Matt Cain.

Asked what advice he'd give Wilson, Lee said, "Don't throw balls down the middle of the plate."

He speaks from experience.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter