SAN FRANCISCO – It was like beating Sandy Koufax or Christy Mathewson, the only stingier pitchers ever in the baseball playoffs. Cliff Lee(notes) had been invincible in the postseason, posting seven wins without a loss the last two years, including three dominant performances in leading the Texas Rangers to their first World Series.
So his start in Game 1 against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night was more than an advantage. He was as close to a sure thing as there is in a sport as capricious as the national pastime. One would have thought, anyway.
The Giants pounded Lee, knocking him out of the game with two outs in the fifth inning. His successor, Darren O’Day(notes), immediately gave up a three-run home run to Juan Uribe(notes), and Lee’s ugly outing was in the books: He’d allowed seven runs, six earned, and the Giants had touched him for five doubles.
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The unbeatable pitcher had been beaten, and by a team with a lowly postseason batting average of .238. The Giants went on to win 11-7, pounding out 14 hits in front of a sellout crowd on a clear night at AT&T Park.
"I missed up, I made mistakes and they hit them," Lee said. "It was unacceptable."
Lee’s earned-run average for the game was 11.57. Coming in, his career postseason ERA had been a microscopic 1.26 – only Koufax and Mathewson had lower ERAs in postseason history – and he was riding a streak of 16 scoreless innings that dated back to the fourth inning of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays had the American League's best regular-season record, and they couldn’t beat Lee. The New York Yankees were the defending World Series champions, and they couldn’t beat Lee.
But the Giants did. Freddy Sanchez(notes) in particular must not have been impressed by Lee’s place in baseball lore. The Giants second baseman became the first player in Major League history to hit doubles in his first three World Series at-bats, fueling two scoring rallies. His double drove in the first run in the Giants’ third-inning uprising that tied the score 2-2, and his third double came early in the six-run fifth inning that put the game way. He also singled.
"Cliff Lee is one of the best pitchers in the game, he’s been almost unhittable in the postseason,” Sanchez said. “There were was nothing psychological about it. We just got to him."
The Giants’ offensive outburst made two early mistakes distant memories. Sanchez was doubled off second base in the bottom of the first after Rangers infielder Ian Kinsler(notes) chased down a pop fly in short right field. And in the top of the inning, Giants starter Tim Lincecum(notes) inexplicably let Michael Young(notes) retreat back to third base after fielding a comebacker and catching Young in a rundown. However, Kinsler hit into a double play on the next pitch and the mental miscue didn’t hurt the Giants.
"The key there was (Lincecum) stayed out of the big inning," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.
The Rangers scored in each of the first two innings, though, and it appeared Lincecum was more vulnerable than Lee. But the Rangers, so adept at taking the early lead during their postseason march through the best the AL East had to offer, gave it back. An error by third baseman Michael Young started the Giants’ third inning, and with one out Lee hit Andres Torres(notes) with a pitch.
Lee was never the same. Six of the next 14 batters he faced got hits and his pitch count was elevated beyond 100 in the fifth inning. Any number of baseball’s statistical gurus would say Lee was due for a correction, that nobody can sustain such excellence forever. After all, Lee has a 3.85 career regular-season ERA, he’s allowed more than a hit per inning and was only 4-6 with the Rangers after being acquired from the Seattle Mariners at midseason.
One outing won’t impact his value on the free-agent market, at least not much. Lee is looking at a lucrative multi-year deal, and already the Yankees are salivating at the chance of adding him to their rotation. The Rangers definitely want to keep him, and Lee, an Arkansas native, hinted after the ALCS that he has enjoyed playing in Texas, just a 40-minute flight from his home in Benton, Ark. Yankees’ fans might have hurt their team’s cause by taunting and tossing beer on Lee’s wife, Kristen, during a game at Yankee Stadium.
New Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg fired the first volley during the ALCS celebration: "We think we have things to offer from a lifestyle standpoint that are enormous advantages. We can't control what the Yankees or any other club chooses to offer. We know we're going to have to be aggressive financially.
"We're not going into this with a pea shooter. The old Rangers are gone."
For one night, though, the pitching-poor, stone-gloved Rangers returned. The Giants took advantage and poured it on. Lee will get another chance in Game 5 unless San Francisco pulls off a sweep. But his opponent would know that he is indeed vulnerable, that he is indeed beatable.