Rangers lean on Cliff, dive into next round
Ace puts stamp on ALDS with another dominating performance
ST. PETERSBURG -- The numbers, as crazy as they are, don't begin to tell the Cliff Lee Story.
This is the man who told the Rays their season was ending. He informed them with his actions, no words necessary, that it was all over for the American League East champions. He did this by delivering a second overpowering performance in six days, driving the Rangers' 5-1 triumph in Tuesday night's Game 5 of a gripping American League Division Series.
Lee is the man who made certain that nobody can take jabs at the Rangers any longer as the lone existing Major League franchise never to win a postseason series.
The Rangers are moving on to face the Yankees in the AL Championship Series starting on Friday night at Rangers Ballpark. Even though Lee won't grace the mound again until the show moves to Yankee Stadium for Game 3, his presence is everywhere.
Lee has infused this team with the belief that it can do just about anything. It just beat David Price, one of the game's premier southpaws, twice behind Lee, who turns the postseason into his garden party.
"The guy they ran out there tonight is one of the best in the game," Price said, having yielded three runs across six innings, "and he proved that over the course of the entire season and this postseason. Sometimes you have to tip your cap."
Rangers team president Nolan Ryan has been tipping his cap since general manager Jon Daniels completed the transforming trade for Lee with the Mariners on July 9.
"When we made the deal for Cliff," Ryan said, "it changed everything. We had that lead horse for our pitching staff."
Once again, with Lee taking the lead, the Rangers made themselves right at home again in Tropicana Field. They turned it into their artificial turf field of dreams for the third time in a strange series, the first ever staged in divisional play that did not accord the home fans a winning performance to applaud.
Lee put the Rays in a funk in Game 1 and applied the clamps in Game 5, taking care of all nine innings this time after working seven in the opener. His 11 strikeouts were a career playoff high, and he lifted his postseason record to 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA in seven career outings.
definite-lee among the best
In 16 innings against the AL East champions, Lee allowed two runs and walked none while striking out 21 batters, tying Kevin Brown of the 1998 Padres for the all-time Division Series record.
Tying the Rays in knots in the finale, he threw 120 pitches, 90 for strikes. Even when he missed, he was close.
"I didn't walk anybody," Lee said. "That was a huge part of it. Obviously, a big part of their game is running the bases and being aggressive on the basepath and making things happen with hit-and-runs and bunts and stuff like that. So by not walking anybody, it kind of eliminated some of that stuff.
"Yeah," he added, describing his approach, "just staying out of the heart of the plate, mixing speeds, just pitching, just working ahead and mixing it in and out, up and down, changing speeds and trying to keep them off balance."
So rare are Lee's gifts, he left one of the all-time greats in awe of his understated yet effective methods in getting an extremely difficult job done with such relative ease.
"I really think these two teams matched up so well," Ryan said in a corridor outside a clubhouse erupting with the standard championship celebration around manager Ron Washington. "The difference was Cliff Lee. I've never seen a guy who has the confidence and the ability to throw strikes like he does and never waver.
"Early in this series, I said I hoped someone would step up. I was thinking in terms of one of our offensive guys -- Josh [Hamilton], Vlad [Guerrero], Nelson Cruz. I didn't know it would be Cliff stepping up again like that, but I'm sure glad he did."
As the game's all-time leader in strikeouts and no-hitters, a first-ballot Hall of Famer with few equals in the game's history, Ryan knows all about what goes into the making of dominant pitchers.
That's why he finds Lee almost as confounding as do the hitters who find themselves at his mercy as he pounds the strike zone with a variety of deliveries.
"With guys like Sandy [Koufax] and [Steve] Carlton and [Tom] Seaver," Ryan said, excusing himself from the conversation with characteristic modesty, "they had that one go-to pitch. Cliff isn't like that. He doesn't have that dominant fastball like Sandy or that slider Carlton had, and Seaver. I'm not even sure what Cliff's best pitch is.
"He runs the ball to both sides of the plate and is always in that strike zone. His cutter is a great pitch, and even though he doesn't throw it that often, his curveball is tough to hit. We saw that tonight. After the way it was working tonight, maybe he'll use it a little more often."
Lee thanked his offense for providing run support and heaped praise on veteran catcher Bengie Molina, who put down all the right fingers.
"Bengie called an unbelievable game," Lee said. "He did a great job behind the plate, and we made plays and here we are."
The only Tampa Bay run, tying it in the third inning, came courtesy of three singles, one a swinging bunt. After Ben Zobrist had singled home Sean Rodriguez, Lee went to work, retiring Carl Crawford on a comebacker for an out at third and Evan Longoria on an inning-ending grounder.
From the fourth through the sixth, Lee put his stamp on the game and the series. He struck out the side in the fourth, struck out two around a Jason Bartlett double in the fifth, and retired the side in order in the sixth with another strikeout.
From the seventh through the ninth, the Rays had one more baserunner, B.J. Upton delivering a single, stealing second and moving no farther.
"That's why we got him," Ryan said, grinning.
"He was as big as you get," said Washington, between clubhouse dousing of various beverages. "Once you give Cliff a lead, he takes it to the finish line."
Now Lee takes his colleagues home for an appointment with a noted outfit in pinstripes.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.