Commentary

Lee looms large in Yankee nightmares

Be afraid, Bombers: Your Game 2 loss puts Texas ace in place to start twice in ALCS

Updated: October 17, 2010, 8:51 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Bankrolled to the max, the New York Yankees do not deal in the currency of fear. Their captain sets the tone on this front. Derek Jeter swears he does not sweat the consequences of failure, and his team follows his lead.

But amid the encroaching afternoon shadows Saturday, fear did not strike out. The Yankees were overwhelmed by the Texas Rangers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series 7-2, and they now trail in the series 1-1.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireWith Cliff Lee starting Game 3, the Yankees' split in Texas could very well make them the first team ever to trail 1-1 in the ALCS.

That's right, despite the split in Texas, the Yankees will start Game 3 in the Bronx trailing in the ALCS. If it doesn't make any mathematical sense, millions of New Yorkers understand why it adds up.

They watched Cliff Lee in Game 1 of last year's World Series, watched him paint a 122-pitch masterpiece against the home team with decisive and dismissive strokes.

Lee caught a bouncer behind his back. He slapped a disdainful tag against Jorge Posada's rump. He struck out a white-hot postseason player, Alex Rodriguez, three times in four tries.

The Yankee Stadium crowd watched Lee that night the way the Madison Square Garden crowd used to watch Michael Jordan -- with reverent appreciation for a master of his craft. Lee became the first World Series winner to strike out 10 without walking a batter since Deacon Phillippe did it in the first World Series in 1903.

That same Cliff Lee is getting the ball Monday night, the guy who christened the first Fall Classic game in the new Stadium by spitting tobacco juice all over Monument Park.

The Yankees have spent the last few days avoiding the topic of Lee the way they might avoid a two-hour lecture on the redeeming social value of the 2004 ALCS. But guess what?

They can't hide from it anymore. That bogeyman is no longer in the closet or under the bed. Lee is right in the Yankees' faces, fully prepared to give the Rangers a 2-1 series lead.

The Yanks and their fans should be afraid, very, very afraid. Andy Pettitte has to slay this beast, and at 38, he's supposed to be too old to do it.

Pettitte has more postseason victories (19) than any other pitcher dead or alive. His resume says he will not be intimidated by Lee. He resume says he will not back down to his Game 3 opponent any more than he backed down to his Game 5 opponent, John Smoltz, in Pettitte's 1-0 classic triumph over Atlanta in the '96 World Series.

"Hopefully it's a good matchup," Pettitte said, "on my end for sure."

The Yankees' Game 3 starter was asked if he would draw on the Smoltz game and his vast collection of profound postseason moments when he faces off against Lee.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesLee will battle Andy Pettitte back in the Bronx in Game 3 on Monday night.

In the past, Pettitte said, "I feel like that was always something I could lean on." A survivor of 41 postseason starts, the left-hander allowed that he doesn't need to lean on much of anything anymore.

"It's not that big of an issue," he said, before quickly adding that he didn't want to come across sounding "arrogant."

Pettitte needs to pitch with a spoonful or three of arrogance Monday night.

"The guy that's getting lost in this is Andy Pettitte," Joe Girardi said of the all-Lee, all-the-time chatter, "and he's pretty good."

But this isn't only about Lee and the likelihood that Girardi will hand the Game 4 ball to A.J. Burnett. (What has CC Sabathia done in this postseason to earn a start on short rest, anyway?)

Texas dominated the Yankees in the first two games here without Lee throwing a single pitch. If Brett Gardner doesn't pull a Pete Rose through the first-base bag in the eighth inning Friday night, igniting an epic Yankees rally, the Rangers would be traveling to New York in a plane full of brooms.

Sabathia was terrible in Game 1. Phil Hughes, who was supposed to be more comfortable in Texas than an oil rig, made CC look positively Koufaxesque with his non-performance in Game 2.

"I didn't get it done," Hughes said.

Not even close.

In the fifth inning, as he watched Joba Chamberlain try to clean his mess, Hughes slumped on the dugout bench the way a pummeled boxer slumps on his stool. This much was evident from Hughes' grim expression:

The Texas Rangers aren't the Minnesota Twins.

Minnesota rolled over and played dead on command, and Texas proved too resilient and too smart to do the same. The Rangers had a simple best-of-seven formula in place on the eve of the ALCS, one that remains intact.

They wanted to split the first two games at home, ride Lee to a 2-1 series lead, and then find some way, any way, to seize one of the next three games before asking Lee to send them to the World Series with a Game 7 victory at home.

This formula was forgotten in the mass hysteria surrounding Game 1. The Texas bullpen was so wretched, and the defeat so heartbreaking, that witnesses on both sides lost sight of the obvious -- a Game 2 victory over Hughes would put the Rangers back on track.

But when Texas was done capturing its first playoff victory since Game 1 of the '96 Division Series, clarity was at hand. The Rangers were looking like every Yankees foe from the '03 Marlins through the '07 Indians.

The Yanks? They were looking like the first team ever to trail a postseason series 1-1, and for good reason.

Cliff Lee is their bogeyman, and one real enough Saturday to leave the losing clubhouse smelling like fear.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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