ARLINGTON, Texas -- Over a nearly 15-month span, Cliff Lee has been traded twice, worn four uniforms and been in two World Series, but on Monday night, he will make his final start of this journey, the last one before he becomes the most coveted free agent this winter.
Where will we see Lee next, perhaps on a Tampa, Fla., mound at Yankees spring training? Clearly, that is not the concern of the Texas Rangers, their fans or Lee. They need him to return to his dominant self for Game 5 of the World Series on Monday night. There simply is no time left. Lee will have to do it against Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants, who are one win from their first World Series title in 56 years.
"This time, I get a chance to redeem myself against the team that actually put it to me pretty good last time," Lee said. "I'm looking forward to it it's basically my last start of the season."
Lee has been one of the main attractions in these playoffs, and because of his brilliance, there will be a fierce pursuit of him this winter and he could make upward of $150 million. But this is an elimination game, and this stage is as big and as final as it gets.
"Cliff's confidence is never going to waver," said teammate and fellow lefty C.J. Wilson. "After everything he's been through, he's earned the right to pitch with supreme confidence. The rest of us obviously are still on a human playing field where we make mistakes and get upset at ourselves. But for Cliff, a mistake is almost an anomaly. It's almost unexpected. It's like, 'Whoa, that's weird.'"
Wilson is probably correct; it would be hard to think fans will see a repeat of Game 1, when Lee was knocked out after only 4 2/3 innings in which he gave up eight hits and six earned runs. Part of what was so shocking was that the master of command struggled with just that; he hit a batter and walked another -- Lee walked only 18 batters in the regular season and hit just one.
"I hit a guy on a 0-2 pitch; I walked a guy," Lee said. "Those are things I don't need to do, especially in the World Series."
It was his first loss in nine career postseason starts, and it stunned those who had come to think of Lee as a sure thing. Lee, per usual, kept his answers straightforward and offered no excuses as to why his outing was so poor.
"I made mistakes," he said. "If I were throwing every pitch on the corner and working ahead in the count and they were doing that, I really wouldn't know what to do. I would think I'd have to change sequences and change my approach to them. But that wasn't the case."
It's classic Lee. Not so full of himself that he can't admit to mistakes, but also still fully confident in his ability to strategize effectively. He just simply missed. The Rangers have confidence that will not be the case in Game 5, and they feel that, if they can get on a plane Monday night to San Francisco, "Anything can happen," the Rangers' Jeff Francoeur said.
Yet, 44 times in World Series history a team has gone ahead 3-1, and 38 of those with that lead have gone on to win the title.
With Lee getting most of the fanfare, Lincecum has, unbelievably, gone under the radar. He is the reigning two-time Cy Young winner, a franchise pitcher who now has a shot, at just 26 years old, to pitch his team to a title. Like Lee, Lincecum is coming off his worst postseason start.
He gave up four runs and eight hits, lasting just 5 2/3 innings. Still, he has a 2.79 ERA and is 3-1 overall in these playoffs. He admitted to feeling nerves in his first World Series game but said that now that he has gone through the Rangers' lineup once, his approach will be much more relaxed Monday.
"I think the experience of being there is a big help," he said. "Going through the lineup again, knowing that you're pitching in another World Series game, just eases the tension there."
As for handicapping who has the advantage given that Lincecum and Lee just faced these lineups, Giants outfielder Cody Ross said it was a toss-up.
"It's going to be a dogfight; it's 50-50," Ross said. "I don't think there is any handicap. It's two of the best pitchers in the league going at it, battling. Last time, we won 11-7, I think, which is weird. I doubt that's going to be the case [in Game 5]."
Lincecum's media session before Sunday's game featured just eight questions. It was brief, to the point. There wasn't much to say. Over on the Rangers' side after Sunday night's game, a gaggle of reporters surrounded Josh Hamilton at his locker while Nelson Cruz entertained a throng on the other side. Sandwiched in the middle was Lee, who quickly dressed, then walked swiftly out of the clubhouse. His exit out the back door meant he missed the board on the other side of the room. Lee, though, likely didn't need to see the message written: "Leave for San Fran tomorrow after the game."
That's his plan.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.