Commentary

Lee takes over Yankee Stadium

Phillies' lefty continues historic postseason with Game 1 masterpiece

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- He leaped out of the dugout and sprinted to the mound in a city where October legends are born.

It was the ninth inning of the first World Series start in the 31-year-old lifetime of Clifton Phifer Lee. And he gave you the impression, with every pitch he threw, and with every mad sprint back out there, that there was no place in the solar system he would rather be.

What happened at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night is not supposed to happen. What Cliff Lee did to the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series -- nine innings of six-hit, zero-earned-run shutout World Series baseball -- just isn't done. Not to these Yankees. Not in this park.

"What he did -- that's not easy to do against any team, much less this team," said Phillies reliever Scott Eyre, after Lee's latest October masterpiece -- and a couple of Chase Utley Bronx rockets -- had finished carrying the Phillies to a stunning 6-1 Game 1 win over CC Sabathia and the Yankees. "But especially in this park."

Right. Especially. Nobody had ever done to the Yankees in this park what Cliff Lee did to them in Game 1 of this World Series. You can spell that N-O-B-O-D-Y.

During their entire first regular season at the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankees never once allowed any opposing pitcher to march into the Bronx, go all nine innings and hold them without an earned run.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Brian J. Myers/US PresswireCliff Lee struck out 10 and walked none in his 122-pitch, complete-game performance.
But then again, you could argue that they'd never met up all year with a pitcher on the kind of roll Lee has been on this October -- a roll as historic as it is downright spectacular.

He now has made four starts in this postseason -- the first four postseason starts of his career. In every one of them, he has gone at least seven innings and given up one earned run or none.

In the history of baseball, only one other starting pitcher ever started his postseason career with four starts like that -- a Hall of Famer named Christy Mathewson, who did it as recently as a century ago (in 1905-11).

Meanwhile, Lee has now pitched 33 1/3 innings in his postseason career -- and given up a total of two earned runs. Two. That computes to a ridiculous 0.54 ERA.

And how many pitchers in history have a lower ERA than that in that many postseason innings? The answer is none. Nada. Your previous all-time record-holder was Mariano Rivera, holder of a 0.77 ERA. He had an excellent view Wednesday of the new record-holder's relentless brilliance.

Before this October, Cliff Lee had been to the old pitcher's mound 194 times in his big-league career. He'd won a Cy Young Award. He'd had a 20-win season. But he'd never thrown a postseason pitch.

So you never know how any pitcher, even pitchers as good as this one, are going to handle the demands and the pressures of October. But if there was any doubt about how Cliff Lee was going to handle all that, uh, let's just say he's now officially obliterated it.

"It's surreal," he said Wednesday night, after becoming the first pitcher in history to rip off back-to-back 10-strikeout, no-walk postseason games. "I mean … this is what you dream of as a baseball player growing up, as a kid. This is the stage you want to play on. You want to pitch in the World Series. I'm here and having success. But it's not over yet."

No, it sure isn't. This was only Game 1 of what still shapes up to be a tremendous World Series. So we figure to see Cliff Lee out there again.

But what he did in this game might well have changed everything. The Game 1 winner has won six straight World Series and 11 of the last 12. And the Phillies now have won Game 1 in six consecutive postseason series over the last two years. They've gone on to win every series of the previous five -- without ever trailing in games at any point in any of them.

"Game 1 is big," said Ryan Howard, "and especially when you get it on the road. When you win Game 1, it puts you in a great position because you've already guaranteed you've got a split here. And it puts you in position to get Game 2 and come back home in an even better position."

By winning Game 1 of this World Series, the Phillies take the pressure off Pedro Martinez as he saunters to the mound Thursday for his first World Series start in five years. And that's a big deal.

By winning Game 1, the Phillies also did something no one else in this postseason has been able to do -- beat Sabathia and deposit the weight of the Yankees' franchise on the shoulders of the notoriously volatile A.J. Burnett. And that's just as big a deal.

But maybe the biggest deal of all is that, by winning Game 1, the Phillies delivered a powerful message to the 26-time World Series champs on the other side of the field -- that their idea of a good time is stomping into the big Bronx cathedral to take on the Yankees for the heavyweight baseball championship of the world.

"We've had a knack for winning Game 1," said their shortstop and resident Nostradamus, Jimmy Rollins. "And it all starts with feeling comfortable playing on the road. Nobody in here felt any pressure tonight. Everyone was loose."

But maybe nobody was looser than the man on the mound, who caught ground balls behind his back, nonchalantly snatched popups out of the sky with one hand, and wound up doing stuff in this game that got the attention of historians everywhere. For instance …

• Lee became the first left-handed starter to beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of a World Series since Sandy Koufax beat Whitey Ford in 1963.

• Lee also became the first starting pitcher in history to throw a no-earned-run complete game against the Yankees in an opener of any of the 67 postseason series in their history.

• And, most amazing of all, he became the first pitcher ever -- yeah, ever -- to unfurl a 10-strikeout, no-walk game in a World Series start in which he allowed no earned runs. In other words, Bob Gibson never did that. Koufax never did that. Curt Schilling never did that. But now Cliff Lee has done it. Against the Yankees. In Yankee Stadium.

Not too bad for a fellow who was considered by many folks to be the other Cy Young in this matchup.

"I think a lot of people out there thought that," Eyre laughed. "But no one in here did."

Three months ago, when the Phillies traded for this guy, these men may have wondered what they were getting. But they found out fast.

"When we first traded for him," Eyre said, "I got a text message from Kerry Wood. I said, 'What's this guy like?' And I got a text back that said: 'Just wait.' Then he went out in his first start and threw a complete-game four-hitter in San Francisco. And I got another text from Kerry Wood: 'Told you.'"

Lee has made 15 starts since that night. The Phillies have won 11 of them. But after watching him allow one run or none in seven of his 12 regular-season starts, his new teammates would have been shocked to learn that this guy still had another gear to shift into. But then the postseason arrived -- and they've seen him shift into turbo-acehood.

Then again, he hasn't been the only one. His second baseman, for instance, has had an October that had people questioning how sound he was of mind and body. But in Game 1 of the World Series, Chase Utley erupted for all the offensive thunder Cliff Lee would need.

In the third inning, Utley became the first left-handed hitter all year to go deep off Sabathia in Yankee Stadium. Then, in the sixth inning, he became the first left-handed hitter to do that in, well, three innings. And that barrage made Utley (A) the third Phillie in history (along with Howard and Lenny Dykstra) to make two home-run trots in a World Series game, (B) the fourth National Leaguer in history to hit two homers in Game 1 of a World Series and (C) -- be sure to roll this one around your brain for a moment -- just the second left-handed hitter in history to hit two home runs off a left-handed pitcher in a World Series game. The other: Babe Ruth in 1928.

So no wonder Cliff Lee has watched Chase Utley and so many of his teammates rise to meet these monstrous October moments -- and felt the urge to do some serious rising himself.

"He's already established himself as a great pitcher in the major leagues," Brad Lidge said. "But I think being here, with this team, with the guys surrounding him, he's elevating his game right now. We were talking the other day, and he said he sees how the other guys on this team elevate their game in the postseason. And what that's done is taken a guy who's capable of doing incredible things and given him the feeling that he can do even better. Which is awesome to watch. It's hard to do a whole lot better than he's doing now."

Hey, you think? But what makes it all especially astonishing is that here this man is, pitching the most important games he has ever pitched, and doing it all -- from all indications -- without bursting a single sweat gland.

"Being cool or whatever, I've always been that way," Lee said. "This is the same game I've been playing my whole life, and this is the stage that I've wanted to get to from a little kid. Now that I'm here, I've already put all the work in. There's no sense in being nervous and worried. It's time to go out there and let my talents and skills take over and execute pitches."

He executed well enough in this game to strike out Alex Rodriguez three -- count 'em, three -- times. A-Rod had punched out just three times in his previous 30 trips to the plate in this postseason.

Lee also whiffed Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada twice each. And by fanning Derek Jeter with his third pitch of the night and Posada with his 122nd and final pitch, Lee became the first pitcher in 26 years (since Mike Boddicker in 1983) to throw a World Series complete game in which he struck out the first and last hitter of the game.

But maybe the two most memorable outs of Lee's enchanted evening weren't strikeouts at all. They were two of the most entertaining pitcher "Web Gem" moments you will ever witness.

The first came in the sixth inning, when Johnny Damon thunked a broken-bat popup right back in Lee's direction. The rest of the infield backed off to let Lee catch it. But they burst into uproarious laughter as Lee barely moved, then one-handed it as casually as a guy flipping Frisbees on the beach.

"When he caught that, I was just, like, wow. I mean, WOW," Howard chuckled. "He was just so, I don't know, nonchalant."

"Hey, I caught it. He was out," Lee deadpanned. "So that's all that really matters."

After that exhibition, you would have thought his defensive wizardry was over for the night. But nope. Two innings later, Robinson Cano one-hopped a ball back up the middle -- and Lee breezily slurped up that one behind the back and threw Cano out, as his infield again went into laugh-track mode.

"When he made that one," said Rollins, "I gave him a little fish eye, and he gave me a little fish eye right back. Then he shrugged, like, 'I don't know.' And I looked at him and said, 'Yeah. Exactly.'"

Then again, it's hard to explain how Cliff Lee is doing any of this at the moment. But his new best friends in red caps will take it -- all of it.

They won a World Series without him last October. But it's clear now that they sure can't win another one without him.

"Yeah," Rollins quipped. "I'd give him a full share."

But this isn't about shares anymore. It's about history. And when a pitcher makes October history atop the mound in Yankee Stadium, this is how legends are made.

"Hopefully, this is the start of his legend," said Jimmy Rollins. "And if it is, hey, I wouldn't mind it."

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