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Cliff Lee elevated the Rangers' status

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The bullpens at Tropicana Field are located directly down the first- and third-base lines, in a configuration you might see at your local American Legion field. None of those fancy-schmancy palatial suites tucked away in the outfield, with cushy seats and all the other amenities that can be found in your average man-cave.

Starting in the seventh inning Tuesday night, Texas manager Ron Washington made sure that his relievers were up constantly in the event that starter Cliff Lee hit a rough patch. First the tag team of Darren O'Day and C.J. Wilson commenced firing. Then it was O'Day and lefty Darren Oliver in the eighth. And finally, O'Day and closer Neftali Feliz engaged in some double-barreled action in the ninth.

Through all that stretching, loosening and warming, the signal never came for a reliever to actually enter the game. Given the identity of the man on the mound, that was no great surprise.

"About the sixth inning we were talking and we said, 'Cliff's gonna finish this game. But let's warm up so our moms can see us at home,"' O'Day said, laughing. "He likes to finish what he starts."

At precisely 11:07 p.m. local time, Lee threw his 120th and final pitch to retire B.J. Upton on a pop fly and seal a 5-1 Texas victory over Tampa Bay in the deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series. Lee's teammates charged in from the dugout and the bullpen and enveloped him in a sea of humanity, and fans who lingered at the Trop were treated to the sight of grown men rumbling while random gloves, caps and other assorted items kept flying into the air. It looked like the ambush scene outside the Wicked Witch's castle in "The Wizard of Oz."

A half-hour later, the Rangers were dousing each other with carbonated beverages and displaying all the frivolity of a team with big aspirations and dreams. Soon enough, talk will turn to their league championship series against the Yankees. But no less an authority than Nolan Ryan, the Rangers' team president and co-owner, took time out to put Lee's performance against Tampa Bay in perspective.

"Cliff Lee is as confident as any pitcher I've ever seen," Ryan said. "And the thing that makes you marvel is, he doesn't have a put-away pitch. He doesn't have a devastating slider, or velocity that blows people away, or a sinker that eats hitters up. But he's so confident in his ability to throw the ball where he wants it, and he pitches to both sides of the plate. It's unbelievable. This was as outstanding a performance in a pressure situation as I've ever seen."

This is, of course, the scenario that Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels envisioned when the Rangers acquired Lee from the Seattle Mariners on July 9 in a trade for first-base prospect Justin Smoak and three other minor leaguers. As Daniels recalls, the Rangers could feel the American League West title within their grasp. But taking the plunge and acquiring a free-agent-to-be who might only be around for two or three months is a move that always requires a leap of faith.

"It's tough to line up when the team is ready to do something like that," Daniels said in hindsight. "It's a big step. That was our biggest question: Are we ready for this? You can't look back."

It was never a question of talent, determination or heart. The baseball world saw what Lee could do in the postseason last year, when he cut a swath through opposing lineups with Philadelphia. But this fall, Lee seems to be taking his game to a whole different level. He's Roy Halladay Southwest.

• In Tuesday's clincher, Lee became only the fourth pitcher to throw a complete game and strike out 10 batters in a winner-take-all postseason game. The other three -- Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Hal Newhouser -- are all in the Hall of Fame.

• In his first seven postseason starts, Lee is 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA. Lefty Gomez, Orel Hershiser and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez are the only other pitchers in MLB history to win their first six decisions in the postseason.

• Lee now has four postseason games with 10-plus strikeouts and no walks. Tom Seaver, Deacon Phillippe, Don Newcombe and Sterling Hitchcock are the only other pitchers to achieve the feat even once.

• In the two games against Tampa Bay, Lee threw 156 strikes and 58 balls. He struck out 21 hitters to tie Kevin Brown's record for a division series, and didn't walk a batter.

The clincher wasn't a complete joyride, but it was pretty close. Lee allowed a run in the third inning on a Sean Rodriguez single, a Jason Bartlett dribbler and an RBI single by Ben Zobrist. But he buckled down to retire Carl Crawford on a fielder's choice and Evan Longoria on a groundout.

If the Rays had any hopes that he might be weakening, Lee disabused them of that notion in the fourth, when he struck out Carlos Pena, Upton and Dan Johnson on a total of 13 pitches. Tampa Bay's lefty hitters were so overmatched against Lee, you almost felt sorry for them.

"He personifies filling up the zone and being on the attack," Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux said of Lee. "He's a baseline for what every pitching coach preaches: Trust your stuff. Attack the hitters. Command the count. He's halfway kamikaze, man. He doesn't try to miss bats. He comes at you and says, 'If I make my pitch, you're out.' He thoroughly believes in himself."'

Lee's focus, quiet confidence and attentiveness to detail were on full display in his postgame interview room session, when he dissected his outing with typical detachment. Lee praised the Rangers' offense for giving him breathing room, credited catcher Bengie Molina with calling an "unbelievable game," and cited the importance of throwing strikes and not walking hitters as a means of negating Tampa Bay's always-dangerous running game.

Dobbs … we were talking and we said, 'Cliff's gonna finish this game. But let's warm up so our moms can see us at home.'

-- Rangers reliever Darren O'Day

To garden-variety baseball fans and connoisseurs of great pitching, it was just a flat-out joy to watch. Lee's list of admirers is headed by Rangers managing partner Chuck Greenberg, the Pittsburgh attorney whose bid to buy the team finally came to fruition in August.

"As someone who loves baseball, to watch an artist at work on the mound is a great thing," Greenberg said. "He was just toying with them. That's why everybody was so loose and confident. People talk about momentum [in baseball]. Momentum is your next starting pitcher, and we had Cliff Lee. We had momentum."

It'll be a little different going into the League Championship Series. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis will pitch the first two games in Arlington, and Lee won't be available until Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. In a way, that's only fitting, considering the Yankees made such a spirited bid to deal for him before losing out to the Rangers in July.

Most baseball insiders still regard the Yankees as front-runners to land Lee through free agency this winter. With every masterful October start, Lee drives up his asking price. But Greenberg doesn't plan to surrender his ace without a fight.

"When the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup finals, they had this phrase, 'Win today, walk together forever,'" Greenberg said. "The more you win, the more you bond. I was adamant the day we bought the team that we don't view Cliff as a rental at all. Where Cliff plays is up to Cliff Lee, but we'd love to have him here, and we're ready to step up and try to make that happen."

It remains to be seen if October champagne-spraying and high-fiving can translate into a business arrangement in November. But the Rangers are growing closer as a unit by the day. They'll walk on to the field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday as winners of a postseason series for the first time in franchise history. That's a pretty good start.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.