Commentary

L.A. meets its match in NLCS Game 3

Cliff Lee and Ryan Howard power the Phillies to an 11-0 victory, 2-1 series lead

Originally Published: October 18, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The first baseman is a hulking, gregarious, 6-foot-5 behemoth from Missouri who has thundered through every minute of his big league life in red pinstripes.

The starting pitcher is a low-key, low-volume, low-maintenance left-hander from Arkansas who just pulled into town 11 weeks ago.

2009 MLB Playoffs

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So if baseball teams were put together by eHarmony, you'd never find two guys like Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee in the same hemisphere, let alone the same locker room.

But that's not how this works, of course. So the baseball gods -- who may actually have been disguised as members of the Phillies' front office -- conspired to put these two men on the same baseball field on the same windswept Sunday night in October. And let's just say that didn't work out so hot for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Lee became the first pitcher in history to spin off eight innings of no-run, no-walk, double-figure-strikeout baseball on the resplendent postseason stage. Howard became the first hitter in history to drive in a run in seven straight games in the same postseason.

And the story of the Phillies' 11-0 dismantling of the Dodgers, in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, begins right there.

With the reigning Cy Young the Phillies traded for in July, for moments just like this.

With the former MVP who is rampaging through October on one of the great offensive rolls of his career.

Lee has now ripped off three straight starts of seven innings or more with one run or none allowed -- in the first three postseason baseball games he has ever pitched. He is the 10th pitcher in history who can say that -- but only the fourth in the last 65 years. (The others: Steve Rogers, Orlando Hernandez and Matt Morris.)

And Cliff Lee makes it all look so routine, so humdrum, so just-another-evening-at-the-office simple, you have to wonder: Does he even know this is October?

"I don't think he does," his buddy, Scott Eyre, theorized. "He doesn't know where he is. He thinks he's still in high school -- because that's how easy he makes it look."

Meanwhile, Howard just keeps on driving in runs anytime somebody shows up on base in front of him. He has now played seven games in this postseason -- and knocked in at least one run in all seven of them. He has now driven in 12 runs altogether in that time -- just one shy of Hideki Matsui's all-time record for most RBIs through seven postseason games.

But what makes this streak especially amazing is that Ryan Howard hasn't compiled it by doing what he's so famous for -- namely pounding a bunch of baseballs that come down in somebody's hot-dog bun.

Ryan Howard
David Philip/Getty ImagesRyan Howard got his uniform dirty on a two-run triple in the first inning.
He's doing it by having intelligent, disciplined at-bats and thumping one big hit after another. He has hit only one home run this October -- as many as Yorvit Torrealba. But Howard is hitting .600 (6-for-10) with runners in scoring position. And, well, that'll work, too.

"We don't have the power-hitting Ryan Howard right now," said Jimmy Rollins. "But we do have a great hitter -- delivering."

What Howard delivered Sunday night was a two-run, first-inning triple into the right-field corner -- punctuated by a headfirst flop into third that did about an 8.7 on the Richter Scale. Asked what it felt like to reach second base and realize he had another 90 feet to travel, Howard quipped: "Flat-out panic." But when he looked around for right fielder Andre Ethier and "saw where he was, I just said, 'All right, here we go.'"

It was career postseason triple No. 1 for Howard -- not that that stat is real likely to shock you. When one clubhouse visitor told him he'd been voted by the press box as More Likely To Steal A Postseason Base Than Hit A Postseason Triple, Howard laughed and announced: "That might be next."

But once the infield had finished vibrating and the dust had finished flying and Howard had finished picking himself up to survey the crazy scene around him, his friendly neighborhood home ballpark was rocking. And this game was never going to be the same.

About 12 seconds later, Jayson Werth mashed a monstrous two-run homer into the center-field hedge collection. And by the top of the second, an RBI double by Rollins and a run-scoring ground ball by Howard had turned this game into a 6-0 wipeout and left Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda wondering why he ever left the Arizona Instructional League.

But there was more to ponder about this game than exactly why the Dodgers were so anxious to rush Kuroda back to start his first game in 20 days.

There was also this: Is it possible the Phillies might be the most resilient team playing any American professional sport at the moment?

Seriously. You need to think about this.

First off, wasn't it just a couple of days ago, in Game 2, that the Dodgers handed this team its most painful loss of the past two Octobers? Correct answer: Yup. And wasn't that the kind of loss that easily could have left a few scars and turned this entire series around? Correct answer: Yup again.

But this team doesn't seem to understand the concept of hangovers -- at least not these kinds of hangovers.

"We have short memories," said Rollins, succinctly.

"We live in the moment around here," said Werth.

"This team," said catcher Paul Bako, "sums up the meaning of the word 'resiliency.'"

Well, all that is easy to say. But now look what they've done -- not just this week, not just this month, but over the past two Octobers: They're now three games into their fifth postseason series of those two Octobers. Not once -- in any of those five series -- have they lost two games in a row. Two.

The 1998-2000 Yankees pulled that off. But we can't find a single other National League team in history that has done that over five consecutive postseason series. Not a one.

The last time these Phillies lost more than one in a row in October was back in 2007, when they got swept in the Division Series by the Rockies. And what happened in those three games laid the groundwork for the powerful sense of purpose this team plays with now.

"I remember, after we got beat by Colorado, everyone was going around slapping five and congratulating each other for a great season," Werth recalled Sunday night. "But Ryan Howard said something to me that night that I haven't forgotten: 'Remember how this feels.' I think he probably said that to everybody.

"And I bet that stuck in everybody's mind over the course of that offseason, because I know it stuck in mine. … It was an empty feeling, and I don't think anybody wanted to go through that again. And we were able to build on that."

The byproduct of what they've built is what you see now -- a tough, relentless, purposeful team that doesn't treat these monumental nights in October lightly, yet somehow finds a way to relax and enjoy every powerful moment.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesIn three career postseason starts, Cliff Lee is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA. He has 20 strikeouts and just three walks.
"You know," said pinch-hit king Greg Dobbs, "baseball gives you lessons. And it humbles you. And it teaches you things. It's up to you, as a team and as a group, to collectively and coherently learn from that -- to pay attention to what the game can teach you. There are lessons that can be taught in this game every day. But if you're not paying attention, they can pass by you like a flash.

"But this team gets it. This team is receptive. We pay attention -- on the field, off the field. It's an intangible. We know we don't have to stress. We know we don't have to panic. And when you can throw all fear out the door, what's left? Just go out and play. There's no fear, no fear of failure here. We're able to leave that behind and go out there and shine like we can. And that's what this team does."

The locker next to Dobbs is occupied by a guy who wasn't around for the lessons of 2007, or for the parade of 2008. But Cliff Lee is riding this train in 2009. And in his own unique way, he fits right in.

"No fear," Dobbs said again, pointing a finger toward Lee's locker. "That's the epitome of it right there. No fear. He says: 'I don't care. I'm going to go right at the strike zone. I'm not afraid.' That's the epitome of the attitude of this group -- the way he pitches."

In this game, Lee did exactly what he's done in all three games he's pitched in this postseason -- worn out that strike zone: 79 strikes out of 113 pitches in Game 1 of the LDS, 72 strikes out of 119 pitches in the finale of that series, then 76 strikes out of 114 pitches in this game. He faced 26 hitters in this start. Just four of them finished their at-bat in hitter's counts.

"When he's locating," said Bako, "I don't know any lineup that can handle him. He's just in complete control when he's on. … He just goes out and pitches his game, and he doesn't care who's hitting or who's at the plate -- whether it's Manny Ramirez or Andre Ethier or whoever. He just makes his pitches, and whatever happens happens."

Uh, what's happened so far is that Cliff Lee has been the single best starting pitcher in anybody's rotation this October. That's all. After the first three postseason starts of his life, his ERA is a ridiculous 0.74.

"I always had confidence in myself," Lee said, "and felt like I could pitch in a big game. But you never know until you get the opportunity."

Well, he knows now, all right. And his new teammates get the picture, too. The funny thing is, they easily could have been hitting against him in this game instead of watching him do his thing -- because if the Phillies hadn't traded for him in July, there's an excellent chance the Dodgers would have.

But when asked what life might have been like if the Phillies had been the team on the wrong end of that auction, the team that had to hit against him in a game like this, Jimmy Rollins didn't even waver.

"Then," said the Phillies' voice of positivity, "we'd just have had to beat him."

We'd wish him luck, except that's all the Phillies have been doing for the last two Octobers -- beating whoever was unlucky to show up in their path.

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