ARLINGTON, Texas – If ever it makes sense for Cliff Lee(notes) to lose his pitching-on-three-days'-rest virginity, to leap into that echelon of aces with enough mettle to test themselves and carry their team, it is now. The Texas Rangers will not ask him to, however, just like the Philadelphia Phillies wouldn't last year, and that says all you need to know about how each team regards Lee.
The Rangers could have started Lee on short rest for Game 4 against Tampa Bay on Sunday and let him close out the series. If he didn't, they would have C.J. Wilson(notes) – who threw 6⅓ shutout innings in the series’ second game – on full rest for Game 5. And, most important, Lee could come back for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on full rest.
The plan is impermeable. It gives the Rangers their greatest two chances to win. And, best of all, Lee would fully endorse it.
"I would've done it," he said. "No problem."
Actually, big problem.
The Rangers thought about it and decided against it.
They preferred to save Lee for Game 5 and put the series’ biggest momentum-swinging game on the arm of Tommy Hunter(notes), a soft-tossing, control-and-command right-hander the Rays pilloried in his last start against them. The team's rationale went like this: Lee has never gone on three days' rest, the team's starters who have did not fare well and they preferred to keep a sense of normalcy about the team.
The deeper truth: They didn't trust Lee enough, and they never heard him request the assignment, because, he said, "I’m not going to go in there and demand anything."
For somebody who wants more than $100 million to lead a pitching staff this offseason, Lee's passivity is stark. There is an ethos in baseball, fair or not, that top-of-the-line pitchers ask for the ball under all circumstances. Lee refuses to ask for the ball; as such, he gives off the impression he doesn't want it. Whether that's the truth – whether he really would, as he said, pitch on three days' rest, or he'd beg off out of fear that he could incur a nine-figure injury – is a mystery because his teams don't bother inquiring.
And it leaves them in compromising positions. Even more than last year, when the Phillies kept Lee on regular rest, the Rangers stand to benefit from him pitching on three days'. Should Hunter lose to a Tampa Bay offense that finally awoke from its Lee-and-Wilson-induced slumber in a 6-2 victory Saturday night, Lee would need to go into Tampa Bay and beat the Rays there for a second time, and even if he did, he couldn't come back until Game 3 of the ALCS.
The downside is negligible. Were Lee to falter in Game 4, Hunter – the one they feel is good enough to earn the start – would remain available. And the likelihood of Lee faltering isn't nearly as bad as the three-days' bogeymen want you to believe.
In the last 20 postseasons, 107 pitchers have started on three days' rest. Fifty-seven went at least six innings, and 77 went at least five. Fifty-seven allowed two or fewer earned runs, and 75 allowed three or fewer. The numbers aren't quite as good for the last decade of playoffs – 15 starts of six or more and 27 of five or more out of 41 pitchers, with 22 at two earned or fewer and 27 with three or fewer.
Only 10 pitchers have gone on short rest in the last five years – and they've done so to solid results. Five pitchers went six innings or more, and eight went at least five. And with five allowing two earned runs or fewer and eight allowing three or fewer, they kept their teams afloat.
It's not like we're talking about any pitcher here, either. This is Cliff Lee, postseason god. Over the last two years, he has thrown 47⅔ playoff innings and allowed eight earned runs with 43 strikeouts and six walks. He is, in fact, the perfect pitcher to join CC Sabathia(notes) on the short list of short-rest pitchers. Doing so demands stinginess with pitch counts, and nobody is more miserly than Lee. His 14 pitches per inning were the fewest in baseball this season. He doesn't walk hitters. His strike-throwing prowess would negate any opportunity for Tampa Bay to drive up his pitch total.
"There is not very many Sabathias out there," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
True enough. Lee just happens to be one of them.
Hunter is not. He dominated early in the season, then saw the league catch up to his mediocre stuff. Proponents will point to his 7-0 record and 3.06 ERA at Rangers Ballpark this season. They ignore that he has allowed 12 home runs here in 67⅔ innings and that his fielding-independent pitching – a truer indicator of what he controlled, taking into account home runs, walks and strikeouts – is 4.87 at home. Moreover, the Rays view Hunter as eminently hittable. Never has he produced more than 11 swinging strikes in a game this season.
Ultimately, this is as much about Hunter vs. Wilson as Lee and how his employers view him. Sure, the Rangers can use Wilson out of the bullpen for Game 4. By the time they would do so, however, Hunter almost surely would have been knocked around. The Rays don't have the same urgency. Starting David Price(notes) for the first time on three days' rest isn't nearly as worthwhile a proposition since Game 4 starter Wade Davis(notes) has been better than James Shields(notes), who would become the other option for Game 5.
Following the Rays' victory Saturday, Price overheard a conversation about the merits of starting Lee on short rest. It didn't initially dawn on him that it was all in theory.
"Lee's throwing tomorrow?" Price asked.
Concern tinged his voice. Even if Lee was going on three days' rest, the Rays don't want to face him. Hunter? Respect exists because he is a major league pitcher, and in his first start this season he threw a complete-game five-hitter against the Rays, but they know the truth: Lee on the road and Wilson at home is infinitely more daunting than Hunter on the road and Lee at home.
Deep down, the Rangers know it, too. Except they couldn't pull the trigger, couldn't ask Lee to do what he never had done. Just like the Phillies before them, they were afraid of the answer.