Skipping Lee was fatal for the Phillies

PHILADELPHIA – As the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager, Charlie Manuel gets paid to make decisions. He is generally good at not making stupid ones. He guided the Phillies to a championship last year and back to the World Series this year. This week he faced the most important choice of the season, and thus one he must have spent goo-gobs of time contemplating.

“Actually,” Manuel said, “we didn’t talk very long on Cliff Lee(notes).”

During the course of that conversation with pitching coach Rich Dubee, the Phillies blew the World Series. Sorry. It’s that simple. No matter what the outcome, Cliff Lee, the best pitcher in baseball this postseason, should have pitched Sunday night in Game 4. Instead, he will pitch in Game 5 on Monday, and for the Phillies’ life, as the New York Yankees parlayed a three-run ninth inning into a 7-4 victory Sunday and hold a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

When Manuel spoke earlier in the day, trying to justify his decision not to start Lee on three days’ rest for the first time in his career, it was so easy, with his intonation like a marble-mouthed Forrest Gump, to envision him uttering: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Stupid did.

Now, he wasn’t the lone gunman here. Lee is at least an accomplice, if not a co-conspirator. He knew the circumstances: The Yankees were starting their ace, CC Sabathia(notes), on three days’ rest. Not only was he their best option, throwing Sabathia in Game 4 would allow him to start a potential Game 7 on short rest as well. Lee should have walked into Manuel’s office, locked the door and said he wasn’t leaving until promised the Game 4 start. Aces do that.

“My job is to pitch when Charlie wants me to pitch,” Lee said, “and that’s what I’m going to do, and I’m going to make the best of those situations. I’m not going to try to second-guess or anything like that. I would have been happy either way.”

Aces don’t say that.

The lack of urgency is staggering. It’s always this simple: Who gives a team the best chance to win a game? That is how managers determine their lineups, their maneuvers, their bullpen machinations – everything. Manuel, apparently, believed Joe Blanton(notes) on extra rest gave the Phillies a better chance to win than Lee on short rest. And even if Lee demanded a Game 4 start, Manuel said there was zero chance he’d have granted it.

“Not any,” Manuel said. “Why not? I’ve answered that about 10 times about the last two days, maybe 25.”

His excuses are too flimsy to support his decision. The first concerns Lee’s workload. He has thrown 265 innings this year. Only four other pitchers had more in a single season this decade. Curt Schilling(notes) and Randy Johnson(notes) possessed freakishly resilient arms, and during Arizona’s run to the 2001 World Series – over, yes, the Yankees – they pushed their innings totals to 317 and 291. During Houston’s World Series push in 2005, Roy Oswalt(notes) threw 269 innings. And Sunday night, Sabathia’s seven innings extended him to 266 2/3 this season.

“You know, at this point in the season, in these situations, physically you feel fine,” Sabathia said. “If anything, you feel too good. I definitely think it’s more mental, just not having the day’s rest to be able to come back and pitch a good game.”

Yes, there’s the mental issue. Manuel talked extensively about changing Lee’s routine and why that would be bad. Of course, that didn’t deter him from asking Lee whether he would be willing to go on three days’ rest. Lee answered yes. The amount of emphasis on that affirmative is unclear, though knowing Lee, whose laid-back nature makes him so effective on the mound, it probably wasn’t terribly effusive.

Some pitchers can’t work on short rest. Lee may have been one of those. We won’t know, at least not this year, because the Phillies allowed that fear and others to contort them into a faulty choice. They saw the history this decade – teams that start pitchers on three days’ rest in the postseason are 12-27 – and panicked.

Those numbers are misleading. Two-thirds of such starters have gone at least five innings, and of them, 73 percent gave up two or fewer earned runs. Another 15 percent, including Sabathia, went that far and allowed three earned runs. Which means that history says that when pitchers on short rest don’t get thrashed early, they have done their job – pitch effectively, Cliff, not pitch when the manager says – almost nine of 10 times.

Sabathia did so Sunday for the second time this postseason. In Game 4 of the ALCS, he shut down Los Angeles for eight innings. He wasn’t nearly as crisp in the second go-around, though he exited with a 4-3 lead and wiggled out of a fifth-inning jam in vintage Sabathia fashion, showing no signs of fatigue from losing a day between starts.

“That’s why we got him,” Yankees catcher Jorge Posada(notes) said. “The reason why we’re in this position is because he really wants the ball. He asks for the ball, and he got it, and he pitched a hell of a ballgame.

“He wants to win. That tells you where his heart is. He wants to win.”

Last season, Sabathia pitched on short rest for the final five starts of the season for Milwaukee. It didn’t matter that free agency awaited. Sabathia risked himself for the betterment of the team and earned eternal respect from his peers for doing so. When Yankees manager Joe Girardi told A.J. Burnett(notes) he would start Game 5 on three days’ rest – not asked, told – Burnett nodded along and said, “I’m in.” Sabathia’s attitude had pervaded the Yankees’ clubhouse.

“It’s got to,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “That type of stuff, without a doubt, has to rub off on everybody. Hey, I’m all in. Are you, too?”

Manuel wasn’t. Lee wasn’t. The Phillies aren’t. Had Manuel committed to Lee for Game 4, the Phillies could have started left-hander J.A. Happ(notes) in Game 5 instead of spoiling him out of the bullpen during Game 3. Lefties during the regular season hit .216 with a .643 OPS against Happ, and the Yankees’ lineup has three. It also turns around switch-hitters Mark Teixeira(notes) and Jorge Posada, who struggle against southpaws.

That’s only added justification for something that needs no justifying. Lee won the American League Cy Young award last year. He shut down New York in Game 1 of the World Series, traipsing into Yankee Stadium, striking out 10, walking none and celebrating a complete-game victory. He was the right man for Game 4, and in an otherwise-empty clubhouse following the Phillies’ loss, he wouldn’t bother addressing the hypothetical.

“I’ve already said everything I needed to say,” Lee said, and he walked off to what had better be some good shuteye. Because he’s starting Monday. And even if he throws another gem, it only sends the series back to the Bronx. Where, if Pedro Martinez(notes) wins Game 6, the Phillies have a chance to capture back-to-back World Series – with their best pitcher sitting in the bullpen in Game 7, available for two, maybe three innings.

They don’t know who would pitch Game 7. It could be Cole Hamels(notes). It could be Happ. It would, almost undoubtedly, be piecemeal. Which is a shame.

Because without one stupid decision, it might’ve been Cliff Lee.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 2, 2009