Commentary

Lee doesn't need adjustment period

Phillies lefty tosses complete game in first postseason start

Originally Published: October 7, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- It's 341 days since the champs finished parading down Broad Street, as confetti flew and grown men cried and euphoria swept through their town.

Cliff Lee didn't make that party. Didn't even watch that party.

But 341 days later, there he was on the mound of Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, starting Game 1 of another postseason for the team that won the previous World Series, those Philadelphia Phillies. It was kind of amazing, when you thought about it.

This isn't exactly something that happens every October, you know -- an incumbent Cy Young Award winner joining a new team and starting the first postseason game played by the defending champs in the year after they won the World Series. Matter of fact, it has never happened before.

Ever.

Well, Lee sure was unnerved by that assignment, wasn't he?

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Mel EvansCliff Lee tossed a complete game in his first postseason start, retiring 16 in a row at one point.

"Unnerved? I don't think he has nerves," quipped Phillies reliever Scott Eyre after Lee had finished spinning a six-hit, complete-game masterpiece in the first postseason game of his life.

Somewhere out there beyond the howling winds, the scoreboard read: Phillies 5, Rockies 1. And Lee was actually one strike from becoming just the second pitcher in the past 25 postseasons to twirl a shutout in his first postseason start -- until Troy Tulowitzki went and blew up that factoid with an RBI double with two outs in the ninth.

Nevertheless, Cy Lee apparently has the makings of a useful little addition to a team that won a World Series without him.

"Last year," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said, "we were pretty much rotating [the pitching staff] around Cole [Hamels]. Joe Blanton came in here and did a super job. But he was still new to us, and we weren't quite sure what we were going to get from him. … But Cliff Lee came over here, and he was a Cy Young Award winner, and we'd faced him, so we knew what type of stuff he had. So … now we've got somebody to push Cole."

Yep. Sure do. In fact, Lee pushed Hamels -- the man who started Game 1 of every postseason series for the Phillies last year -- right into a Game 2 start in the division series this year.

"And if he pitches as good as Cliff Lee," the Rockies' Brad Hawpe said, "it'll be a tough game."

It also will be big trouble for those Rockies, if it isn't already. Since this playoff format debuted in 1995, 25 of the 28 teams that won Game 1 of the National League Division Series have gone on to win the series.

Then again, the Rockies clearly aren't big believers in history. They were 12 games under .500 -- and 15½ games out of first place -- as recently as June. And now they're still playing baseball games in October. So how terrified would a team like that be by the prospect of being only one game down in a best-of-five series?

"Obviously," manager Jim Tracy said, "we've been in this position before -- trust me, more than once -- where obviously tomorrow is a pretty important game."

But the good news, said Hawpe, is: "We're fortunate we don't have to face him again [in Game 2]."

"Him," of course, would be Lee -- a fellow who was actually a controversial choice by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to start Game 1 instead of Hamels, thanks to that messy 6.13 ERA Lee had piled up in his previous seven starts. But Lee made that controversy disappear in precisely 2 hours and 48 magical minutes on the mound.

He was the first Phillies pitcher to throw a postseason complete game since Curt Schilling's Game 5 classic in the 1993 World Series.

He threw just 34 non-strikes out of 113 pitches -- the second-lowest number of pitches out of the strike zone by any NL pitcher in a postseason complete game since Randy Johnson also tossed 34 balls in a Game 2 shutout in the 2001 World Series.

And just to prove his ability as a multitasker, Lee even stole a base -- making him the first pitcher to swipe a base in a postseason complete game since Wild Bill Donovan did it for the Tigers in Game 5 of the 1908 World Series.

Asked afterward whether he could remember the last time he had stolen a base in any kind of game, Lee didn't even blink.

"American Legion," he said.

Asked whether he got a good jump on that one, Lee laughed and said: "[Against Colorado] I did. I didn't even have to slide."

When the day began, Lee confessed, he wasn't planning on doing any Rickey Henderson imitations. But then he singled off Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez with two outs in the third inning. And first-base coach Davey Lopes had an idea.

"That was totally Davey Lopes," said Lee, who joined Donovan, John Smoltz (three times) and Billy Loes (1952) as the only pitchers in history to steal a base in a postseason game. "That was totally him. By no means was I out there thinking I was going to steal a base. He told me a little pointer. I saw what was going on. And he said, 'If you think you can get it, go ahead and go.' And I did."

Lee's first big league burglary didn't lead to a run. But it did serve as a fascinating sneak preview of the Phillies' approach to often-unhittable Jimenez.

They took off for second three times against him -- making it there twice. And all that dancing around seemed to frazzle Jimenez, who blitzed through four spectacular shutout innings, then allowed eight of the last 11 hitters he faced to reach base.

"

Lee Obviously, I wanted to make the postseason roster [in 2007 with the Indians]. Why wouldn't I? But that's in the past. I'm not thinking about that at all. I'm looking forward.

" -- Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee

"We were just looking for a crack, and we took advantage of it," Rollins said. "Once we had runners on, he really started paying attention to the runners and not to the pitches he was throwing. And he started getting balls up in the zone."

When the Phillies played the Rockies in the NLDS two years ago, they got 16 hits in the whole series. On Wednesday, they wound up getting nine hits just off Jimenez, in five-plus innings. And that hung five earned runs on the Rockies' ace -- only the second time he had given up that many in his past 30 starts.

But once those five runs were on the board, the rest of this day turned into the Cliff Lee Show.

After a Yorvit Torrealba double in the second inning, Lee steamrolled through 16 straight hitters, 21 of the next 22 and 23 of the final 26 he faced. Unlike many of his starts in the past month, in which he felt as if he fell into too many hitters' counts "and they made me pay for it," he rolled nonstop strikes off his assembly line Wednesday.

"He was always on the corners," Hawpe said. "He was locating with his changeup and his curveball. He was just all over the strike zone [Wednesday].

Lee ran only four three-ball counts all day. And he doled out zero walks. So he and Jason Schmidt (Game 1, 2003) are the only pitchers to throw a no-walk complete game in the NLDS in this decade.

"[In Game 1] I was more staying away from 2-0 and 3-1 counts … and staying out of the heart of the plate," Lee said. "That's as simple as I look at it."

He did that relentlessly for 2½ masterful hours. And the next thing he knew, he found himself standing on the mound on an electrified October afternoon, one strike from a historic shutout, as the largest crowd in the history of this ballpark (46,452) chanted his name.

It was a powerful scene, an emotional moment. It was so powerful, so emotional, in fact, that Lee made what he later decided was a biiiiiiig mistake.

He stepped off the mound, rubbed up the baseball and took a look around this stadium, trying to take all this in.

Then he stomped back up to that rubber, delivered what was supposed to be the final pitch of a near-perfect day and …

Threw three straight balls, followed by a full-count meatball, which Tulowitzki zapped up the gap in right-center for the double that killed Lee's shutout.

"So I wish," Lee said, with a grin, "I wouldn't have done that."

But if that was his only regret from the first postseason start of his life, then Lee obviously had himself a heck of a day.

Two years ago, you might recall, he pitched for an Indians team that made the playoffs. But when that team launched into the playoffs, it did so without him.

"Obviously," Lee said Wednesday, "I wanted to make the postseason roster. Why wouldn't I? But that's in the past. I'm not thinking about that at all. I'm looking forward."

And the team he plays for now also has been looking forward -- not just to what the new Cy Young in town might add to its championship mix but to resuming the mission it set out on eight months ago in tropical Clearwater, Fla.:

Becoming the first National League team since the 1975-76 Reds -- and just the second since the 1921-22 Giants -- to win back-to-back World Series.

"Finally," Rollins said, "we're here. Finally, the wins actually count for something. "Now it's one down and 10 more to go."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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