SAN FRANCISCO – About 45 minutes before the game that would change the franchise, the Texas Rangers' clubhouse palpitated. Soon, Cliff Lee(notes) would walk through the doors. And though nobody wanted to anoint him, everyone in a Rangers uniform understood a simple truth: He was their ticket to the World Series.
Nobody said so that day, of course. The conversation skewed simple, introductory small talk.
He was joking. Lee had traveled overnight from Seattle on July 10 after the Rangers acquired him from the Mariners for four prospects. They thought he might pitch that day. The team had a contingency plan in case Lee pleaded exhaustion.
"We can get someone else," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said.
"No," Lee said. "I'll do it."
And so in the deathly Texas summer heat, in front of a bunch of guys he had met an hour earlier, Cliff Lee put on his fourth uniform in less than a year, went out against the Baltimore Orioles and pitched a complete game.
They can't lie now: Everyone gawked a little bit. Lee was the new toy, the prize in the cereal box, the unexpected gift, and they all wanted to see what made him into the indomitable pitcher he had proven since 2008.
When Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told manager Ron Washington that the team had acquired Lee, Washington said he told him: "Good job, Jon. You're the man." That is likely the sanitized version. Washington and everyone on the Rangers who dabbles in expletives let out a string of them to celebrate not just beating the Yankees for Lee but fortifying a team that had the look of a contender, just not the feel.
[Photos: More of Rangers star Chris Lee in action]
With Lee, the Rangers boasted a true No. 1, an ace who last season the Philadelphia Phillies landed for the stretch run and rode to the World Series. He's been even better this postseason, and with strong showings in Games 1 and 5 could lay claim to the greatest postseason ever. He has allowed two runs in 24 innings, walking one and striking out 34, and thrust the Rangers past favored Tampa Bay and New York to face the San Francisco Giants starting Wednesday night.
And he has done so with a singular style, not just in his left-handed precision but his sartorial approach.
"He pitches in a cotton T-shirt," O'Day said. "He's probably the only guy in the league who does that. Sign No. 1 that he's a man. It gets real heavy. I think he's part lumberjack. I asked him about it, and he likes it. Hey, look at how he pitches."
Cotton T-shirt. Flannel button down. Heck, Lee could wear a tux underneath his uniform, and his teammates would make sure it gets dry cleaned before every start. More than anyone – even the man who replaced him when Philadelphia dealt him this offseason to Seattle, Roy Halladay(notes) – Lee exudes presence, an all-knowing feeling that he is better than the hitter he's facing. He throws more strikes than anyone in baseball, and hitters still can't square up his pitches for the life of them.
Such an attitude – an I-don't-give-a-fat-rat's-ass-what-I-throw-cuz-you-ain't-hitting-it approach – melds with a mind for pitching that Maddux calls "genius" and forms the sort of uberpitcher whose aggression overwhelms anything hitters can muster.
"I want that more than anything," Rangers left-hander Derek Holland(notes) said. "I want to be Cliff Lee. That's what makes him impressive. He goes right after guys. Nothing intimidates him. And that's what I like about him the most."
It took time. Lee arrived for good with Cleveland in 2004 after spending four years in the minor leagues. He had decent velocity for a lefty and relied on extreme command. When he lost that in 2007, the Indians sent him to Triple-A. Back he came the next year, and he won the Cy Young. Then came layovers in Philadelphia and Seattle before July 9, when Texas consummated the deal.
Washington poked his head in the clubhouse. A grin spread across his face. We got Cliff Lee, he told his team.
"We had a few claps," Hunter said. "Kind of a corny-ish round of applause. But we threw it out there."
And as much as Washington wants to believe what he said – "We're not bringing Cliff Lee over here to carry us" – it's obvious that the Rangers were. They had C.J. Wilson(notes) and Colby Lewis(notes) in the rotation, Neftali Feliz(notes) and O'Day and Darren Oliver(notes) in the bullpen, Josh Hamilton(notes) and Nelson Cruz(notes) and Ian Kinsler(notes) and Michael Young(notes) and Andrus playing every day. But none of them – not even Hamilton, the soon-to-be MVP – could do what Lee has done this October.
He's more confident now. Used to be that when Lee talked about himself, or his starts, or anything, really, the country boy from Benton, Ark., showed up. He recognized that doesn't sell, and that if Lee wants to survive in New York next year – the Yankees are going to bid $150 million-plus for his services as a free agent so Lee doesn't stifle them again – he needed to open up.
On the day before the biggest start of his life, Lee sat atop the dais and charmed everyone. He was personable. Funny, even. He joked about the Yankees fans launching loogies from the upper deck into the family section during the ALCS. He tried his best to tiptoe around insulting the Giants' meager lineup. And he turned contemplative when looking back at his 3½ months with Texas.
"There was definitely something special about Philadelphia when I got there, and there was definitely something special about this team when I got here," Lee said. "It didn't take me long to realize that in both of those situations, and both teams made it to the World Series."
So here he is, in Game 1 of the World Series, against Tim Lincecum(notes), the bizzaro mirror image of Lee. Lincecum is a righty, Lee a lefty. Lincecum's delivery is arms and legs akimbo, Lee's the picture of calm. Lincecum lives on a changeup, Lee a cutter.
"One guy's a stock car and the other guy is more of an Indy Cart," Maddux said. "They both go fast. They're both loud. One guy is a little more precision than the other. But at the end of the day, they're pretty quick and they've got a lot of horsepower."
And in a postseason defined by brilliant pitching performances – Lincecum's Round 1 demolition of Atlanta and Lee's last start Oct. 18, an eight-inning, two-hit, no-run, 13-strikeout stripping of the Yankees' will were both almost as good as Halladay's no-hitter – the work of the teams' aces will set the tempo for the rest of the series.
As confident as the Giants are in Lincecum, nothing right now compares to the Rangers' feeling when Lee pitches. It all started that first night. He threw 95 pitches, 73 for strikes, and though Baltimore touched Lee up for six runs and beat him, the Rangers understood: This was their guy, their ace in a sweaty white T-shirt, their ticket to the World Series.
"And now," Hunter said, "we just need to win it."