ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It’s only one game. Except when it’s not.
Cliff Lee(notes) made it seem like he won almost a half-dozen games for the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Wednesday. Lee won the actual game, 5-1. He won the momentum game, by giving the Rangers home-field advantage. He won the experience game, by giving a team that has never won a post-season series a sudden feeling of empowerment. And maybe most importantly, he won the psychological game, by the mere fact that the Rays haven’t come close to figuring him out and can’t exactly load up videotape of a team that has beaten him in the playoffs. That’s a lot of games, considering there are only four left in this series.
The Rays were the best team in baseball as of Wednesday morning, but Lee had the Tampa Bay hitters doing more double-takes than a bad ‘70s sitcom character by the afternoon. Lee had twice as many strikeouts (10) as hits allowed (5), and a lot of the punchouts were more embarrassing than your eccentric uncle’s Facebook status updates.
Molina smiled at that, and it became clear that the catcher was as caught up in Lee’s brilliance as he was in the supposed tension of the postseason. Standing outside the Rangers’ clubhouse as his teammates showered and dressed, Molina raved about catching Lee as if he was hyping a brand new PlayStation.
“He can control the fastball better than anybody I know,” Molina said. “He lives on the corners. He can throw any pitch at any time. I can call any pitch on him and Cliff will make it work.”
To say Lee is in control is obvious, but what is special is his control in a shaky situation. And the Rangers, considering their franchise history, are in a perpetually shaky situation. The team came into the Trop without a postseason win since 1996. The Rangers are the only team in baseball with zero postseason series wins. So having a guy who can “throw any pitch at any time” is no small thing, especially considering Lee has never lost a postseason game in five outings dating back to last year. He was exactly what the Rangers wanted him to be when they traded for him mid-season, and he is the great equalizer in a series which greatly favored the Rays until lunchtime Wednesday. “There’s never going to be a point,” Lee said, “when I’m on the mound that I feel like it’s not going to be my day.”
The Rays’ ace probably couldn’t make the same claim after Game 1. David Price(notes) didn’t exude the same feeling of control, and he admitted he felt fine but “just didn’t have it today.” Maybe that’s because Price threw a ton of fastballs to a team that dines on fastballs, and all he could come up with in reply was another batch of fastballs. He threw a first-pitch fastball to I’ll-swing-at-anything-just-watch Jeff Francoeur(notes) in the second inning with a runner on, and the ensuing double gave the Rangers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. In the next inning, Price threw a 3-0 fastball to Nelson Cruz(notes), who swatted a solo homer to make it 3-0 Rangers. Basically, with Lee on the hill, that was the ballgame.
“They were swinging from strike one,” Price said. “It makes it tough when guys come out and do that.”
Problem is, the Rangers will do that again if they see Price again. (“Hopefully I’ll get another shot at throwing again,” Price said.) So it’s up to Price to figure out some other approach. Lee doesn’t need to figure anything out. He can come back in Game 4 or 5 (if necessary) and mix the cutter and the curveball or just give the joystick to Molina and let him call the game. Lee might even be more dominant the second time around, considering he had a so-so first inning and needed to break a sweat to settle down. Either way, the Rays have made zero progress against Lee while the Rangers can go to sleep tonight without fear of anyone on the Rays starting staff. That’s more of an advantage than “just one game.”
No need for panic in St. Pete. The Rays have been through a postseason before, and successfully. They did hit the ball hard on occasion, and they can tell themselves the game might have gone differently if a few of their line drives landed in the outfield instead of in Ranger gloves. They can point to a missed call by home plate umpire Tim Welke with the bases loaded in the first inning. Carlos Pena looked like he got hit by a 2-1 pitch, but Welke called it a foul ball when Pena didn’t hurry off to first base. (Clearly, Pena did not attend the Derek Jeter(notes) School of Master Thespianism.) Lee proceeded to toy with Pena and strike him out three straight times. Rays manager Joe Maddon called the afternoon “bad baseball luck,” and maybe he’s right, but pointing to luck doesn’t give much solace when facts give the winner of Game 1 a 72 percent chance of winning a DS series and facts also give Cliff Lee’s team a 100 percent chance of winning a postseason game. (At least so far.) Maddon admitted the game was a steep uphill climb once the Rangers had the early lead and “that guy” on the mound.
Yes, it’s only one game. But the Rays recognize a frightening reality: Win tomorrow or go to Texas knowing they must beat That Guy.