SAN FRANCISCO – Nobody lives in the strike zone like Cliff Lee(notes), spelunking into danger, inviting batters to attack balls over the plate, daring opponents – damn near begging them – to swing their bats. It doesn't just take a man of great skill to throw 71 percent of his pitches for strikes. It necessitates great fortitude, too.
Because every so often, it happens. Lord, did Lee not want this to be the time or place, but it's simply a consequence of who he is, an uncommon side effect of his usual brilliance. Sometimes, the baseball doesn't cut or fade toward the corners of home plate. Sometimes, it just sits there, dead red, fat as a force-fed duck, at the knees, bisecting the plate, a cookie on which major league hitters, even a crew as rag-tag as the San Francisco Giants, will feast.
And gorge they did in Game 1 of the World Series, an 11-7 oddity that bore an unlikely effect from an even unlikelier cause: the Giants putting up double-digit runs off Lee, whose hallmark command eluded him all night at raucous, sold-out AT&T Park and put his Texas Rangers in a 1-0 hole.
Lee's first postseason loss in nine starts wasn't as much about the Giants stringing together great pieces of hitting as it was their capitalizing on Lee's mistakes. And after pitching his way into Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson comparisons with his first three playoff outings, Lee dive-bombed out of that stratosphere and into an ugly reality: 4 2/3 innings, eight hits and seven runs allowed.
Most harrowing was Lee's tendency to leave pitches in the middle of the strike zone. His success exists on the fringes, and when they're as frayed as they were Wednesday night, Lee can struggle.
Lee had all the feel of Shaq shooting free throws. His fastball was spotty, his cutter deweaponized, his curveball and changeup nonfactors. When he jogged off the mound at 6:47, down 5-2 and with two runners on base, Lee tried not to hang his head. After Juan Uribe(notes) hit a three-run homer three pitches later off reliever Darren O'Day(notes), Lee couldn't help but sulk.
"I was a little bit erratic and trying to find it," Lee said. "For whatever reason, I couldn't get consistent locating pitches. That's the games where you've got to go to Plan B and battle, and that's what I was trying to do. They made me throw a ton of pitches, and in that fifth inning I've got to do a better job with damage control."
Until Game 1, Lee seemed impervious to the hazards of throwing a baseball over the plate so often. During the regular season, 71.2 percent of his pitches were strikes, the highest number for any starter in the 11 years since baseball began tracking such data. In his three postseason starts prior to the World Series, Lee threw strikes 71.3 percent of the time, and Tampa Bay and New York couldn't touch him: 24 innings, two runs, 34 strikeouts.
The strike zone for Lee resembles a gentrified neighborhood: safe place to hang out most of the time, dangerous if you're not careful. And Lee wasn't. In the tide-turning fifth, he let a cutter float back across the plate and land in left-center field for an Andres Torres(notes) double. Freddy Sanchez(notes) belted a belt-high fastball for another double, his third of the night and the Giants' fifth. And after Pat Burrell(notes) coaxed a full-count walk out of Lee, Cody Ross(notes) knocked one of Lee's better pitches for a single and Aubrey Huff(notes) sent a middle-middle fastball from whence it came, Lee's night ended.
"That's unacceptable," Lee said, and it was, particularly for a Rangers team banking on his brilliance. Texas traded for Lee this summer with this very moment in mind: Game 1 of the World Series, hostile environment, him playing rockabye to opposing bats. Anything less felt like a gyp.
"Everybody has such high expectations of Cliff," Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton(notes) said. "Cliff has such high expectations of himself. We know what kind of pitcher he is. We know he can dominate a game. But he's human, too. He didn't have a bad performance tonight. He had a normal pitcher's performance, but he's not a normal pitcher."
No he isn't, neither in approach nor performance. So good was Lee in the previous two rounds, Hamilton said if he was told the Rangers would score seven runs for him, "I'd have said 80 percent chance we're going to win." Shortstop Elvis Andrus(notes) was even firmer: "We shouldn't lose that game."
The lamenting extended to Lee as well. It was such an inopportune time to throw a stinker, so bothersome – if seasonally appropriate – to morph from carriage to pumpkin. Better now than Game 5, his next scheduled start, which the Rangers can ensure with a Game 2 victory Thursday.
C.J. Wilson(notes) will start for Texas. Like Lee, he is a left-hander who throws primarily fastballs and cutters, and whose raw stuff isn't as overwhelming as it is well-applied. Wilson considers himself a bootleg copy of Lee, lacking the quality and refinement. Earlier this postseason, Wilson said: "Cliff is a better version of me."
Not the Game 1 incarnation. That was a stand-in Cliff Lee, a mockery of the pitcher on whom the New York Yankees will try to lavish $150 million this offseason. He spelunked and invited and dared and begged the San Francisco Giants to hit him. And they did. Harder than anyone could've imagined.