Essential Lee.

There are images you never forget, a Nolan Ryan pitch that made history or a Rusty Greer catch that preserved a perfect game, a Pudge Rodriguez fist pump or Josh Hamilton double fist pump, an impossible Gary Matthews catch or improbable David Dellucci double.

Tuesday night’s indelible image for me was Cliff Lee’s march toward home plate as B.J. Upton lofted the first pitch he saw with two outs in the ninth, a simple yet striking walk toward battery mate Bengie Molina during which Lee never looked up or back, paid no attention to where Upton’s pop-up was headed or where or when it might land, an understated set of steps that I’ll never forget.  

It started, as the ball shot straight up off Upton’s bat, with Lee demonstratively clapping his left hand into his glove, then taking a slow, measured walk towards the plate, presumably never taking his eyes off his catcher the whole way even though we didn’t get to see Lee’s face in those 10 awesome steps.  

We didn’t see his face until well after we saw this:

Lee_Molina.jpg

 

He never looked back.  The baseball world watched the harmless flare settle into Elvis Andrus’s mitt, ending the series, all but Cliff Lee, who wasn’t even curious. 

It was as if, just as most of his night had gone, he didn’t need to see where the ball ended up, because his own visualization of the ball’s path, start to finish, rang true with every pitch. 

He was surgical all night long, with his four-seam fastball and his two-seam fastball and his cutter and his curve ball and his slider and his change, and for Lee there was no point in watching the 27th out get made.  He knew exactly where the ball was going.

All night.

The man never looked back to see the biggest moment in Texas Rangers history.

He’s so ridiculously cool.

He’s Don Draper.

The local high school classes of 2029 are going to have an oddly large concentration of “Cliff’s” in them.

Our next dog will be named Cliff Lee.

And he, or she, will startle all comers with a spectacular lack of wasted energy, an imposing subtlety, and an endless supply of cool.

His first time through the Rays lineup, Lee threw 28 pitches.  Every one of them was a fastball, or a cutter.  Every single one of them.

As the Rays order rolled and leadoff hitter Jason Bartlett stepped back in with one on and one out in the bottom of the third, and Texas ahead, 1-0, Lee, who knew in pregame warm-ups that the curve was going to be a reliable weapon for him in Game Five, and yet kept it in his back pocket through each Rays hitter’s first look at him on the night, finally showed the big bender.

Lee had Bartlett down in the count, 1-2, and had thrown to first several times to keep Sean Rodriguez close, when he spun his first curve of the night, a pitch that stayed up and that Bartlett beat into the ground for an infield single to set up what would be Tampa Bay’s lone run of the night (on Ben Zobrist’s single to center).  Lee escaped further trouble by getting Carl Crawford to roll back to the mound (and starting a 1-2-5 rundown to erase Bartlett from third) and Evan Longoria to bounce out to shortstop.

He never threw a second curve that inning.

But then the gameplan shifted.  Texas took a 2-1 lead in the top of the fourth (when Nelson Cruz turned two mistakes into a run, first admiring a double off the center field wall that should have been a triple, and then inexplicably attempting to steal third with two outs [it's not as if David Price, who tends to work up in the zone, was prone to Brandon Webb a pitch or two into the dirt, which I suppose might have made the risk of getting thrown out worth the reward of moving from second to third] and coming home when Kelly Shoppach’s throw toward third took off into left field), and Lee took a new plan to the mound.

After throwing just the one curve in his first 42 pitches over three innings, Lee would throw 18 of them over his remaining 78 pitches.  And most of them were gorgeous.  Or nasty.  Depending on your perspective.

Lee would maintain the cut fastball, which was a tremendous pitch for him all night, but would show the Rays far fewer four- and two-seamers, actually throwing fewer over those final six innings than he did in the first three frames.  From a strike efficiency standpoint, the curve was actually the least effective of Lee’s six offerings (12 of 19 for strikes, or 63 percent), but several of them came in huge spots, and the threat of that pitch made everything else work.  Of the 38 cutters Lee threw, a silly 33 of them were strikes (nine swinging, seven called, nine fouled, eight put into play), and very few were hit with any authority.

You’ve heard this many times by now: there have been eight playoff pitching performances in the history of the game in which the pitcher logged at least 10 strikeouts and no walks.  Lee has now authored four of those masterpieces.  Four other pitchers (Deacon Phillippe, Don Newcombe, Tom Seaver, and Sterling Hitchcock) did it one time each.

The great Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner points this out:

Sandy Koufax pitched 57 playoff innings in his career, scattering 10 runs on 36 hits [two home runs] and 11 walks, striking out 61.

Cliff Lee has pitched 56.1 playoff innings in his career, scattering 12 runs on 38 hits [one home run] and six walks, striking out 54.

Lee tied an LDS record with 21 strikeouts (matching Kevin Brown’s 1998 effort with San Diego), and his zero walks in 16 innings represented the first time a pitcher had thrown at least 15 walkless frames in such a series.

He put on an absolute clinic in Game 5.  To say he located all night doesn’t do his performance justice.  The dude flat painted.

Three-fourths of Lee’s pitches went for strikes, but very few pierced the zone – he annihilated the picture frame, with assassin’s precision.

Meanwhile, the Rangers offense didn’t so much punish Price as it pressured him, creating opportunities and capitalizing on them.  I was too locked in watching the game, practically immobilized (outside of my Twitter barrage), and so the thought didn’t occur to me until afterwards that the way the Rangers generated offense Tuesday night reminded me of the Super Bowl Saints, a team that probably had fans without a rooting interest thinking, “Man, I wish my team played baseball like that.”

Yes, Cruz and Ian Kinsler did something no playoff teammates since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had done (hitting three home runs each in a playoff series, which Ruth and Gehrig did in 1928), but Game Five was more about audacity than brawn.  The first three Texas runs, unbelievably, scored from second base without the ball ever leaving the infield – unless you count Shoppach’s throw that sailed past Longoria into left. 

The last time a playoff run scored from second on an infield grounder was in 1970, when Orioles outfielder Paul Blair motored around in the eighth inning of Baltimore’s World Series-ending Game Five against the Reds, as Cincinnati second baseman Tommy Helms tossed to reliever Ray Washburn covering first base on a Boog Powell grounder.

Forty years later, the Rangers did it twice, in the first (Andrus) and again in the sixth (Big Bad).  And that
doesn’t count Cruz scoring from second on his crazed stolen base attempt, with two outs and Kinsler’s hot bat at the plate.

It’s almost funny: If you had to name the four Rangers with the biggest issues on the bases in 2010, it would probably be Andrus, Guerrero, Cruz, and the glacial Molina.  They were the base-running stars in Game Five.

(It wasn’t only Cruz’s run that probably shouldn’t have happened the way it did.  Think about this: If Shoppach hadn’t held onto a Hamilton foul tip on 2-1, Andrus’s first-inning steal of second would have been nullified.  Maybe he still would have stolen on the next pitch [which turned out to be a 2-2 ball], setting up Hamilton’s run-scoring groundout to first.  But maybe not.) 

(And this: Price gets the primary blame for Guerrero’s run, but Shoppach deserves some, too.  If he wasn’t out of position at the plate, Price’s throw home almost surely cuts Guerrero down.)

The havoc that Texas created on the bases had to make the Yankees uncomfortable from their couches.  New York can be run on, as the Rangers proved in 2010, stealing eight bases without being caught in the teams’ eight matchups. 

New York decided yesterday to flip Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte in its rotation, setting up the following matchups: C.J. Wilson against C.C. Sabathia in Game One, Colby Lewis against Hughes in Game Two, Lee against Pettitte in Game Three, and Tommy Hunter against A.J. Burnett in Game Four.

The Yankees aren’t modifying their playoff roster from their Division Series against the Twins, but the Rangers are.  Pinch-runner Esteban German (who wasn’t used against the Rays) will be dropped, replaced by an additional left-handed reliever.  The bullpen, which was a bit shaky against Tampa Bay, needed the reinforcement, while David Murphy’s proven health has made Julio Borbon a bench player, minimizing the potential need for an extra runner like German.  Candidates for the southpaw spot include Clay Rapada, Matt Harrison, and Michael Kirkman. 

Frankie Francisco, still not recovered from his rib cage injury, will not be added to the roster.

Ron Washington said that Jorge Cantu will likely be in the lineup at first base against Sabathia or Pettitte.  He sat against Price on Tuesday after looking overmatched against him in Game One.

Lee’s use on Tuesday meant he’ll start Game Three instead of Game One, but a few thoughts there. 

First, Texas was reluctant to use Lee on short rest in Game Four against Tampa Bay, which was at the time the biggest game in franchise history, so shouldn’t we assume it would be unlikely for the club to have planned to use him on short rest in the World Series?  He wasn’t going to pitch Games One, Four, and Seven. 

Second, Game Three is the first game in Yankee Stadium – I sure don’t mind Lee getting that assignment, no matter what happens in Arlington in the first two games. 

Third, using Lee on short rest in any scenario would make it less likely we’d get nine innings out of him, and the way several of the relievers are going, you don’t want to go into any game increasing the chances you’ll need to depend on the bullpen. 

Texas advanced without getting much of anything in the ALDS from who most would agree is its best player, Hamilton.  Almost as stunning as the fact that Texas won the five-game series without winning a home playoff game for the first time is the idea that the Rangers move on without getting so much as an extra-base hit from Hamilton in the entire series.

But Texas has Cliff Lee, who the Yankees would have right now if they hadn’t been so insistent on replacing injured minor league second baseman David Adams, alongside catcher Jesus Montero, with righthander Adam Warren instead of infielder Eduardo Nunez or righthander Ivan Nova in their trade talks with Seattle.  Had that played out differently, the Rangers aren’t in the ALCS right now.  They probably would have reached the ALDS, but with a much different team, and not only at the top of the rotation.

Lee will start in New York on Monday and, if the series is still going, in Arlington a week from Saturday (or conceivably Friday).  That feels really, really good.

There may be another indelible image or two to add to the bank, right around the corner.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport
 

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