Commentary

Cliff Lee executes pitches, Yankees

Unflappable Rangers lefty outperforms the hype to put team closer to World Series

Originally Published: October 18, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Texas Rangers pitcher Cliff Lee is oblivious to rosin-on-the-cap conspiracy theories. He has no fear of patient, power-laden lineups. And he couldn't care less about "God Bless America" delays, inspirational shots of Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez on the video board and the challenge of facing an opponent with 27 world championships in its back pocket.

If Queen's "We Will Rock You" is blaring over the public address system, it might as well be Brahms' Lullaby. Lee's mind is focused on catcher Bengie Molina's mitt and the assigned task of carving up the strike zone, and nothing is going to distract him from the business at hand.

"I don't really look too far in the past or too far in the future," Lee said Monday night. "I look at what I can do today to prepare for tomorrow, and so forth. Most of the time, it's just to go out and have fun and execute pitches."

Or execute opponents.

After his latest October gem, two questions remain: Can the New York Yankees recover? And how far does $150 million go in Benton, Ark.?

Everyone expected Lee to come up big in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, and he came up bigger than that. For eight innings and 122 pitches, he dazzled Major League Baseball's most vaunted lineup with impeccable control and otherworldly focus. And when the game was over, the Yankees must have felt as though they were on the wrong end of a helmet-to-helmet collision.

Lee struck out 13 batters and walked one Monday night, surrendered two harmless singles and failed to go the distance only because the game was so far out of reach that Rangers manager Ron Washington had no need to send him back out for the ninth. The end result -- an 8-0 Texas victory -- gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the series, and left Yankees fans oh-so-close to a full-blown freak-out over their team's plight.

Lee, 32, is pitching at a level that doesn't do the laudatory adjectives justice. He's 7-0 with a 1.26 career ERA in the postseason, and Monday he became the first pitcher ever to strike out at least 10 batters three straight times in the same postseason. Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals also did it three consecutive times, but it happened over the 1967 and 1968 postseasons.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireCliff Lee retired the first 11 Yankees hitters he faced.
Heck, even Roy Halladay has had an off night this October, but Lee keeps churning along.

"He's probably never going to throw a 54-pitch complete game, but if anybody could do something like that, it's him," Rangers starter C.J. Wilson said. "It's something for all of us to look at and think, 'If I could just get anywhere near that, it would be awesome."'

Three games into the ALCS, it's amazing to think how close the Rangers are to having a stranglehold on the proceedings. If not for a Texas bullpen meltdown and a five-run eighth-inning Yankees uprising in the series opener, the Rangers would be up 3-0 right now.

Still, the sense of urgency in New York is palpable. The Yankees will send A.J. Burnett and his 5.26 ERA to the mound Tuesday night, and they'll have to win the next three games unless they want to encounter the mother of all bad-news scenarios: A Game 7 matchup against a well-rested Lee on his home turf in Arlington. In light of the way Lee is pitching, that's not a place you want to be.

"I've faced him and played defense behind him, and people always say that Cliff just throws strikes, strikes, strikes," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "It's really not that easy. He's not firing balls down the middle of the plate. He's throwing quality strike after quality strike, and there's a big difference."

Lee struck out 21 batters and didn't walk a man in two division series starts against the Tampa Bay Rays, but the Yankees still approached him with their trademark patience in the early going. The first time around the order, DH Marcus Thames was the only New York hitter to swing at the first pitch.

After Josh Hamilton gave Texas a 2-0 lead with a first-inning home run off Andy Pettitte, Lee made full use of his repertoire. New York's offense consisted of a walk to Mark Teixeira in the fourth, a bloop single by Jorge Posada in the fifth, a ground single up the middle by Brett Gardner in the sixth, and a lot of disconsolate walks back to the dugout. Lee, an equal-opportunity assassin, recorded six strikeouts on fastballs, three on cutters, three on curves and one with a changeup.

And just when you think he's tiring, he finds another gear. Lee entered the eighth inning with 109 pitches, and promptly added a mile or two per hour to his fastball. He ended the inning with a piece of pure artistry -- throwing three straight fastballs to the same keyhole-sized spot in the bottom outside corner of the strike zone against Gardner. New York's left fielder never took the bat off his shoulder.

At 122 pitches, Lee had already surpassed his season high, but there was no way Washington was going to the bullpen in the ninth.

"Basically, when I came in, he said, 'How do you feel?"' Lee recalled. "I said, 'I feel good.' That was it. It was a five-second conversation. He said, 'It's your game."'

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Charles KrupaCliff Lee would be the Rangers' Game 7 starter, if necessary.
The Rangers saved Washington the trouble of defying convention and pushing Lee beyond 130 pitches when they flogged David Robertson and the New York bullpen for six runs in the top of the ninth. That outburst led to a fringe benefit for Texas, as Washington had the luxury of using rookie closer Neftali Feliz in a low-pressure mop-up situation in the bottom of the ninth.

About two-thirds of the 49,840 fans in attendance had vacated the premises when Feliz came on and set down Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Teixeira in order. It took Feliz 20 pitches, but the outing probably served as a confidence booster after he'd looked so shaky earlier in the postseason.

"In the playoffs, it's a different atmosphere. It's a different animal," Washington said, "and I think every time we can get him out there in these types of situations, the better it's going to be when we have to put him out there in a tight ballgame. Everything is a little bit more magnified, and you have to make sure that you can control that magnification."

Lee experiences that "magnification" every time he takes the mound, because of the hype he's generating and the drama that beckons this offseason. He's eligible for free agency in November, and the price keeps climbing every game, every inning, every pitch.

With his low-key Arkansas demeanor, Lee doesn't seem like a New York type of guy, but the conventional wisdom is that the Yankees won't take no for an answer. Meanwhile, new Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg has vowed to make a spirited effort to keep Lee in Texas, and his fellow Rangers sure love having him around.

"The Yankees aren't the only team that has money," Wilson said. "Cliff's going to be in high demand for a lot of different teams. Pretty much every team that has space and a bank account is going to throw something at him. You never know what's going to happen."

The same can be said for events this October. The Rangers are two games away from their first World Series appearance, and Cliff Lee has them convinced that just about anything is possible.

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.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer