Lee is the Phillies’ leading man
NEW YORK – It was Game 1 of the World Series, at the bazillion-dollar new Yankee Stadium no less, and Cliff Lee(notes) couldn’t be stirred from his coma. When a lazy pop-up came right at him, Lee did not move. The Philadelphia Phillies’ starting pitcher admired his handiwork for a moment, flung his glove in the air and let the ball plop into it. Never bothered to move his feet. Might as well have closed his eyes for good measure.
“I just kind of blacked out,” Lee said. “Then I woke up and had the ball.”
And right there, in the sixth inning, the New York Yankees knew: To Lee, mystique and aura and ghosts meant about as much as a wad of used dip. Two innings later, he would, with the same nonchalance, nab a ground ball behind his back, throw it to first base and show New York that swagger isn’t their birthright alone. Turns out, 144 years after Appomattox, a kid from the South named Lee can beat the Yankees.
In a postseason of masterful performances, this was, stage considered, Lee’s biggest and best: complete-game dominance in a 6-1 victory Wednesday night against a Yankees team favored to win its first title in nearly a decade. Never mind that the Phillies are the defending champions, and that atop their rotation is the 31-year-old Lee, well on his way to one of the great postseasons of all time.
For the second straight start, Lee struck out 10 and walked none. In the previous 105 years of postseason baseball, four pitchers had double-digit strikeouts and no walks. The one run the Yankees mustered came on a Jimmy Rollins(notes) error in the ninth inning, and by the time Lee lulled Jorge Posada(notes) into a feeble swing and miss with his 122nd and final pitch, he had lowered his postseason earned-run average to 0.54 in 33 1/3 innings.
No, he won’t outdo Christy Mathewson’s flawless 27 innings in 1905 with which he won the World Series almost single-handedly. Everything else – from Sandy Koufax in the ’65 Series and Mickey Lolich in the ’68 Series to Orel Hershiser in ’88 and Curt Schilling(notes) in ’01 – is his for the taking.
The fact that his iconic performance was delivered with the countenance of a man who looked like his wife was making him watch “The Bridges of Madison County” makes it that much better. In the city that perfected the glum face, Lee did even that better than New York. He wore the look, and short sleeves amid a constant drizzle, and even a bit of ire from his manager for the basket catch off Johnny Damon’s(notes) bloop in the sixth inning.
“He was trying to pull a Willie Mays on us or something,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
And that was about the worst thing he could say about the left-hander who joined the Phillies in a trade from Cleveland on July 29 and remade them from a team with suspect starting pitching into one capable of, say, thieving home-field advantage from a 103-win team by beating their $161 million ace.
As Lee outfoxed CC Sabathia(notes), his good friend from their days with the Indians, the Phillies watched from the field and dugout and bullpen and marveled. Before he arrived in Philadelphia, they knew of his precision by reputation, and his 2008 American League Cy Young award. It was his insouciance – his honest-to-goodness detachment from a moment as big as Game 1 of the World Series – that cold-cocked them.
“It’s so Arkansas,” Phillies pitcher Joe Blanton(notes) said to his mates in the bullpen Wednesday, and Lee does welcome that explanation. He still lives in Benton, Ark., the town of about 30,000 where he was raised, and he adopts an attitude that isn’t so much laissez-faire as live and let live.
“He makes himself like that,” Blanton said. “It’s almost God given, like you can throw 100 mph.”
Take his approach in Game 1 against Alex Rodriguez(notes). The Yankees’ third basemen entered the game hitting .438 this postseason. He slugged five home runs in the first two rounds, drove in 12 runs, walked nearly twice as much as he struck out and re-established himself as the AL’s most feared hitter. He had hit two homers off Lee in 15 career at-bats.
“I don’t know if there’s any one way to get him out,” Lee said.
So he tried three ways and struck him out three times in four at-bats – after A-Rod had five in his first 32 playoff at-bats.
Lee started with four straight fastballs against Rodriguez and finished him with a swing and miss at a cut fastball. The next at-bat, he began with a changeup, then went cutter, toyed with a few more fastballs and watched him flail at a changeup for strike three. A curveball induced a weak groundout in at-bat No. 3, and Lee figured for the final one he’d go back to what worked the first time: three fastballs and an off-speed pitch, a change that Rodriguez was as far out in front of as Dewey Defeats Truman.
On all three of Rodriguez’s strikeouts, Lee started him off with no-ball, two-strike counts. He is better than anyone at baseball at creating such situations. During his two months with the Phillies, Lee went to 0-2 counts with 39 percent of the hitters he faced. The major league average is 22 percent. And while Lee hewed closer to that in Game 1 – eight of 32 hitters faced 0-2 counts – the specter of such untenable situations wreaks havoc on lineups, even one as patient as the Yankees’.
Sounds like a predicament the Yankees could face after Thursday. The Yankees start A.J. Burnett(notes), who is consistent only in his inconsistency, and face Pedro Martinez(notes), who, with no apparent irony, said Wednesday that “I might be, at times, the most influential player that ever stepped in Yankee Stadium.”
Yeah, this series is shaping up as one of those, epic and grandiose and overstated, and Lee already is playing an integral part. If the Phillies win Games 2 or 3, he’ll likely wait until Game 5 to pitch. Should they lose the next two, Manuel must decide whether to throw Lee on short rest and have him for a potential Game 7.
The Yankees wish they faced such easy problems. They mustered just six hits and learned the last three teams from the NL to win the World Series did so after taking Game 1 on the road. The only good news the Yankees gleaned from Wednesday: “He can’t pitch every day,” said their manager, Joe Girardi.
The respite from their nightmare will last at least three days, though Lee’s specter will continue to loom. The Yankees know he is there and is no longer the pitcher who spent much of 2007 in the minor leagues when he lost all semblance of effectiveness.
“I try not to think, wow, I’ve got this figured out,” Lee said, “because usually when you start thinking you’ve got something figured out, it’s going to blow up in your face.”
One problem: Lee does have it figured out. He sliced, diced and julienned the $200 million team. He sent more than 50,000 fans home angry, turned George Steinbrenner’s return to Yankee Stadium sour and did it with the sort of aplomb that New Yorkers would applaud were it not against their team.
Lee was indeed a modern marvel, a pitching mixologist, and yet there was something naturally coalescent about what he did, turning history on its head for one night.
In the courthouse of baseball lore, Lee made the Yankees surrender.