Ultimate competitors ready for Game 5 duel
It's win or go home as Lee, Price ready to battle at the Trop
ST. PETERSBURG -- Carl Crawford, who chose baseball over potential careers in football and basketball, recognizes a rare competitor when he sees one.
David Price, the Rays lefty who engages the Rangers' Cliff Lee in a classic confrontation in Tuesday night's decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field, clearly makes Crawford's short list.
"I consider myself an ultimate competitor, and he's right up there," Crawford said. "He hates to lose. Price is such a competitor. It's going to be hard to beat him twice. We feel real confident about it."
Unless you're looking for an argument, don't tell Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler anyone is more competitive than Lee.
"His competitiveness is off the charts," Kinsler said. "We're all pretty competitive people, but it seems like Cliff competes at anything -- who can eat the fastest, who shot the biggest deer; just random stuff. He's just the most competitive person I've met. I think that helps him out a lot when he's on the field. When he gets in jams, he's able to buckle down, slow down a little bit and put the ball where he wants it. I think just the competitiveness really puts him over the top."
Sounds like baseball's version of "Survivor."
The All-Star Game starter in Anaheim for the AL, Price was one of the primary reasons Tampa Bay toppled superpowers New York and Boston in the loaded AL East. No starter in the game was more consistently excellent than the 19-game winner from Vanderbilt with the frame of an NBA small forward.
The AL West champion Rangers have attached something close to superpowers to Lee, who came to the Lone Star State on July 9 and instantly provided championship-level credibility unmatched in franchise history.
This could be Whitey Ford vs. Sandy Koufax, Game 4 of the 1963 World Series at Dodger Stadium.
To hear the Rangers tell it, Lee would hold his own in a big game with any of those greats from the past, including his iconic boss, Nolan Ryan.
"We think we've got the right guy going in Cliff," said reliever Darren Oliver, the Rangers' calm voice of reason. "He's one of a kind, a different guy. It's like a Wiffle Ball game in the neighborhood with Cliff. But the season's on the line. It's going to be intense. He's got to go in and take care of business."
Lee is a feel pitcher, while Price is all about power, mixing in offspeed stuff to keep hitters honest. By any measure, these are two of the five or six premium starters in the game.
Neither Lee nor Price was at his peak in Game 1, taken 5-1 by the Rangers when they deflated a Price who was less than precise. Lee needed a high-wire act in the first inning, yielding singles to three of the first four hitters he faced before leaving the bases loaded with a pair of strikeouts. The Rangers jumped on Price for two second-inning runs, knocking him off balance.
Lee's unflappable manner on the mound is eternally framed in that unforgettably casual catch of a popup last October while he was doing everything in his considerable power to bring a World Series title to Philadelphia.
After acquiring Roy Halladay, the Phillies surprisingly sent Lee to Seattle. When the Mariners struggled, they moved the man from Arkansas to the Rangers for a package featuring first baseman Justin Smoak. This left the Yankees' universe, convinced Lee was on his way to the Bronx, in an uproar.
"Cliff's a big-game pitcher, and he's the exact guy we want pitching," Rangers outfielder David Murphy said. "You've got to like our chances with him going."
Lee gave Texas every reason to feel confident with his superb effort in Game 1. It grew even darker for the Rays 24 hours later when C.J. Wilson, following the Lee formula beautifully, shut down Tampa Bay completely in a 6-0 victory.
Refusing to buckle, manager Joe Maddon's Rays rallied to life late in Game 3 at Rangers Ballpark to save the season once and came back hours later to do it again on Sunday, using pitching from Wade Davis, power from Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena and high-quality defense to send the show back to Florida.
"This is what you grow up as little kids seeing, growing up watching all the games, the postseason games and World Series games, and you see match-ups like this," said Price. "Now that I get to be a part of one, I need to kind of grasp it and take control of it and give us a chance to win."
Price knows he was not himself in Game 1. One of the big blows was a mammoth homer by Nelson Cruz on a 3-0 pitch. Price won't groove a fastball again in a situation like that.
Lee also yielded a solo homer in Game 1 to Ben Zobrist, but it came with a five-run lead late when he was pumping the strike zone, not overly concerned with hitting the edges of the plate.
Like Price, Lee likes to take his sign, grip the ball and let it rip. There is a commanding presence in all the great ones. A quick pace keeps their bodies in rhythm and their defenses alive and in tune.
"I am really a guy that goes out there and makes pitches and sees how the hitter swings at them and makes adjustments on the fly," Lee said. "Obviously, I will have a game plan, and what I did last time, a lot of that worked. So they will have to prove to me that they are making adjustments before I will make a big adjustment.
"That's how I have always pitched. I will make pitches and see how they swing at them and try to make adjustments with that. I've pitched the same all season. I do the same thing every time. It's up to the hitter to tell me how to make an adjustment."
His catcher, Bengie Molina, has caught dozens of superb pitchers in 12 Major League seasons. None remind him of Lee.
"He's unique," Molina said. "There are so many things he can do out there, and he's so confident in what he does. It's amazing to catch a guy like that. He gives everyone so much confidence."
The Rays swear by Price, believing he is the right man for the moment.
It's a duel at 60 feet, six inches, the stakes stacked as high as the top of the Trop.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.