Cliff Lee vs. David Price.

That “get your head outta your butt and let’s play baseball” game we talked about yesterday, the one that kicked off Cliff Lee’s run of four ugly starts before he was temporarily shut down with back issues, was on August 16.  Tampa Bay won, 6-4, scoring four runs in the eighth inning, an epic disaster of a frame in which Texas arguably gave the Rays as many as seven outs.

That was the Joaquin Arias game, though one thing I’d forgotten about it was that Arias didn’t start, but instead was inserted defensively in the bottom of the seventh (after Mitch Moreland had hit for Andres Blanco in the top of the inning).

But more to the point, that game pitted Cliff Lee against David Price, and offers something possibly instructive as the two get set to tee it up again in a few hours.  

Tampa Bay scored more runs, and had the same number of hits as the Rangers.  

But through six innings, even though the Rays held a 2-0 lead at that point, Price had thrown 102 pitches, an average of 17 per inning.  Lee had thrown just 66 (11 per inning).

A clearly fatigued Price threw seven more pitches in the top of the seventh, only one of which was a strike — a pitch that Bengie Molina doubled to deep left center ahead of a four-pitch walk by David Murphy that ended Price’s day.  Texas clawed back by scoring twice that inning and twice more in the eighth, giving Lee what seemed then like a safe two-run lead with six outs to go . . . before the Arias inning in the eighth.

Yes, Tampa Bay’s bullpen is solid, and on a tear right now (finishing the season on a run of 32.2 innings without allowing an earned run).  But the key to the Rays’ post-season fortunes, and certainly to Game One, is David Price, and to wear him out the way Texas did on August 16 seems like a very good idea to try and gameplan again.  

Much is made of the fact that C.J. Wilson leads the American League in walks allowed.  But Price allowed the sixth-highest total in the league.  The Rangers drew five walks off Price in that six-plus-inning effort two months ago, and if they can take as patient an approach this afternoon — despite the energy of the day — I like our chances.

I went back yesterday and read the report I wrote on July 4, the one in which I spent a crazy amount of time imagining what a conversation between Seattle and Texas about a trade for Lee might look like, what I thought it might ultimately take to get him, and whether I’d do it.  

He was acquired for this series, and this game.  He’s fanned 25 Rays this year, and walked two.  He’s allowed four stolen bases all season, neutralizing the aspect of the game that Tampa Bay relies on so heavily to create runs.  Yes, he’s 0-3, 4.56 against the Rays in 2010, but let’s dig a little bit on that.

On May 5, just Lee’s second start of the season after returning from an abdominal strain, he gave up five runs (four earned) over eight innings, but he’d allowed only two runs going into the eighth, an inning that went this way: flyout to right, infield single, bunt single, looping single to short left center, lineout to shortstop followed by a throwing error by the shortstop, ending Lee’s day.  (Sound familiar?)

On May 16, Lee took a complete game loss, giving up two Tampa Bay runs (single scores in the seventh and eighth innings) on five hits and one walk, fanning 10.

And then there was the August 16 debacle.

Lee really hasn’t been too bad against Tampa Bay this year, running into trouble only in the late innings, and even then as a frequent victim of crummy hits and poor defense.

His otherwordly 10.28 strikeout-to-walk rate features a 12.50 mark against the Rays.  Tampa Bay’s .613 OPS trails eight other Lee opponents.  Only three teams (Detroit, Oakland, Kansas City) struck out more frequently against Lee this year.

And again, Texas acquired Lee for October.  

Last year, he started Game One of the NLDS for Philadelphia, getting a complete-game win over Colorado.  He allowed one run on six hits and zero walks, fanning five (adding a single, sac bunt, and stolen base of his own for good measure).

In Game Four of that series (which was on regular rest), he gave up three runs (one earned) on five hits and three walks, striking out five Rockies.

In Game Three of the NLCS, he fired eight scoreless innings, scattering three Dodger singles and no walks while punching out 10.

In Game One of the World Series, Lee held the Yankees to one run — unearned — on six hits and zero walks in a complete-game win in Yankee Stadium, setting 10 hitters down on strikes.  He came back in Game Five, with the Phillies facing elimination, and got another win, permitting five runs over seven-plus innings — but just two runs going into the eighth.

What do you think the experts were saying before that Game One performance, as Lee had given up four New York runs on 16 hits and five walks in 12 innings (3.00 ERA) during the season?  Bet they weren’t anticipating 9-6-1-0-0-10.  

Lee is a big game pitcher.  A Game One pitcher.

It still shocks me that the Rangers got Lee — and more Seattle cash than they’ve had to pay Lee themselves — without giving up more.  And, to a lesser degree, that Lee said yesterday: “I enjoy it here in Texas.  It’s been a good ride so far, and yeah, I could see myself being here in the future. . . . It looks like it’s going to be a good team for years to come.  And that’s what I want to be a part of.  I want to be a part of a winner.”

It’s not time to get ahead of ourselves and start thinking about whether Cliff Lee could be a Ranger for the next five or six years, but when he says things this week like, “Hopefully we do some damage here in the post-season, win the World Series, and that will make things a lot easier on me,” it’s hard not to be thinking about the long term at least a little bit.  

Then again, what else is he going to say?  

Man, I’m exhausted.  Couldn’t fall asleep last night.  So I’m probably not thinking clearly in the first place.  I need this game to start.  I have no interest in overthinking this game anymore (but if you want some more analysis, and a really good breakdown, look no further than to our own Scott Lucas), and there’s absolutely no good reason to be thinking about the long term right now.

Of course, that’s what we’ve all been conditioned as Rangers fans to do.  To think about the future.  Because the present always had that “Just wait for where this team will be” undercurrent, so we could maintain our sanity.

That changed this year, and it changes in a big way today.

Price vs. Lee.  An encore, in a sense, of that miserable August 16 game,  But maybe with a different defense on the field, and hopefully a similar offensive approach, and the same pitcher, the consummate big game pitcher, healthy again, Texas could grab the opener of the series, stealing with it the home field advantage.  

Game One is always important, but in this series it seems even more so than usual, given how much Texas relies on its ace, and how much the Rays depend on theirs.

Cue up the anthem.  Please.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
Twitter  @newbergreport

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