Commentary

Hey, Cliff Lee: Can't beat 'em? Join 'em

By refusing to lose to him, Yankees make perfect recruiting pitch to All-Star left-hander

Updated: August 12, 2010, 2:50 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- When it comes time for him to sign his big free-agent contract this winter, if Cliff Lee harbors any lingering doubts about his ability to succeed in New York, a game like Wednesday night's Cliff-hanger between the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers should lay all those doubts to rest.

Over the course of nine tumultuous innings that took nearly four hours to play, the Yankees showed Lee and his teammates that, to paraphrase the guy in the song, if you can't make it there, you can't make it anywhere.

In humid, 100-degree weather that would have dropped a camel to its knees, Lee pitched his heart out, firing 106 pitches, working into the seventh inning, striking out 11 Yankees, walking no one and leaving some of baseball's most accomplished hitters shaking their heads and slamming their bats in frustration.

After five innings, Lee had a 6-1 lead, which most nights is as solid a bet as you can hope to make. And yet, by the time he left, wrung out, dripping with sweat and worn down by a Yankees lineup that doesn't know when it is supposed to be beaten, Lee and the Rangers were clinging to a 6-4 lead and an air of dread hung in the soggy air over the Ballpark at Arlington.

And the dread proved justified when Marcus Thames, a role player thrust into the pivotal role of No. 3 hitter, crushed a home run in the eighth inning to pull the Yankees within one.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireCliff Lee beat the heat Wednesday, striking out 11, but his Rangers couldn't hold off the Yankees.

In the ninth, they did it the way they used to do it, with patience and selectivity at the plate, heads-up baserunning and timely hitting, something that has often seemed this year to be in limited supply.

Lance Berkman, the only starter not to strike out on a night in which the Yankees were fanned 17 times, tying a franchise record, worked out a leadoff walk with an at-bat that was the epitome of professionalism.

Then, manager Joe Girardi sent in Curtis Granderson, his erstwhile center fielder who has been relegated to the bench as he struggles to overcome a season-long slump, to run for the heavy-legged Berkman.

After Brett Gardner singled, that move paid off, when a pitch from Rangers closer Neftali Feliz sailed to the backstop but bounded right back to catcher Bengie Molina. But Granderson's speed and alertness got him to third ahead of the throw, and Gardner trailed him to second.

Derek Jeter then threaded one through a drawn-in infield to tie the score.

Now came Thames, a guy who had enjoyed an up-and-down night, striking out looking twice against Lee but also singling and scoring the Yankees' first run in the fourth. He crushed that huge home run off Frank Francisco in the eighth.

Facing Alexi Ogando, a pitcher of the variety Thames is not supposed to be able to hit -- a right-hander -- he fell behind 0-2 on fastballs. Ogando came with a slider and Thames hung with it, pulling it hard past third baseman Michael Young, and the Yankees had climbed all the way out of the hole to take a 7-6 lead.

"The guys never quit," Girardi said. And how many times have we heard that before? Surprisingly, fewer this season than in years past. A hallmark of last season's championship team was its refusal to quit on a game, an inning, an at-bat or even a pitch. A league-high 15 walk-off wins and more pies thrown than in a Keystone Kops film.

If there has been one element of the Yankees' game that has been missing this year, it is that feeling that no matter what the score or how dominant the opposing pitcher, it was never over until it was over. Too many nights this year, the Yankees have fallen behind and were never able to claw their way back.

On this night, however, it felt like 2009 again. "The guys kept pecking away and pecking away," Girardi said. "And all of a sudden we're back in the game."

Mariano Rivera came on to do what a half-dozen Rangers relievers couldn't do and what he himself couldn't do Tuesday night, and did it in spectacular fashion, needing just six pitches to set down Young, Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero, the three most dangerous hitters in an explosive lineup, after Elvis Andrus had opened the inning with a triple and stood just 90 feet away waiting to send the game into extra innings for the second night in a row.

"That shows you the kind of team that we have," said Rivera, who took the loss Tuesday and then racked up his 24th save Wednesday. "I never, never give up on these guys, because I have seen this for many years. Not only last year or the year before. Many years."

"We have not had as many walk-off wins this year, there's no doubt about it," Girardi said. "But we still have 70 wins. But those [come-from-behind] wins can be great momentum builders."

And great spirit-crushers to the team that loses them.

When Lee -- who, with all due respect for CC Sabathia, becomes the ace the moment he walks into the Yankees' clubhouse -- sits down to make his decision for next season, he should remember this one.

He should remember the one his Rangers lost to a team that refused to give up, with a closer who refused to give in, with a lineup that showed it was tough enough and patient enough and determined enough to wear out even a pitcher as great as Lee.

As great as he has been in Cleveland and Philadelphia and Seattle and Texas, Lee could be unbeatable in New York.

If that doesn't help make his decision easier, nothing will.

GAME NOTES: Javy Vazquez pitched his shortest outing since May 1, lasting just 4 1/3 innings and allowing six runs. Although Girardi said Vazquez's velocity was better than in his last outing against Boston, the pitcher seemed dismayed by his inability to reach 90 mph. "The fastball is not there," he said. "I don't have any life, any kind of zip on it. I feel good with my mechanics but I reach back and all I get is 88. It's a little frustrating, but I gotta locate." ... The last time the Yankees struck out 17 times in a game, it was to Pedro Martinez in 1999 and they lost 3-1. ... Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada struck out three times each, and Nick Swisher fanned four times. In a unfathomable twist, the Yankees struck out 10 times over the final four innings -- and still managed to score six runs. ... With Tampa Bay losing to Detroit, the Yankees extended their lead in the AL East to 1½ games. ... Mark Teixeira will rejoin the team in time for Thursday night's game in Kansas City. The matchup: Sabathia (14-5, 3.14) vs. LHP Bruce Chen (7-5, 4.44). First pitch 8:10 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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