Cliff Lee finally gets his first win of 2012
Cy Young left-hander beats Mets after three-month drought
It took half a season, three frustrating months and 13 fruitless starts, but on the Fourth of July, Cliff Lee finally won a game for the Phillies.
Understand that Lee isn't some run-of-the-mill left-hander. He has hardware like the 2008 Cy Young Award to certify his status as one of baseball's premier pitchers. He came into this season with a career record of 119-69, a 3.65 earned run average and the most postseason wins (7) and strikeouts (89) from 2006-11.
Lee went 17-8 with a Major League-leading six shutouts and a 2.40 ERA last season. He won five games last June, and five more in August, and became the first pitcher in Major League history to post two months in a season with five wins and an ERA under 0.50. The six shutouts were the most for a Phillies pitcher since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton had six in 1982.
But, somehow, Lee had not won a game this season until a week before the All-Star Game. He was 0-5 with an uncharacteristic 4.19 ERA before beating the Mets. The only other Cy Young winner to begin a season with as long a dry spell as Lee's was Vida Blue in 1983.
"I would love to have had a win before this," he said matter-of-factly, after drying off from a postgame Gatorade celebration orchestrated by pitching partner Roy Halladay. "But you guys (the media) made it a bigger deal than I did."
It was a rotation headed by Lee, Halladay and Cole Hamels that seemed to make the defending division champion Phillies a formidable National League East contender. Hamels delivered with 10 wins over the first three months, but Halladay has been on the disabled list for six weeks, and Lee was winless.
There were extenuating circumstances. With sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley sidelined by injury, the Phillies' attack suffered, and so did Lee. The team scored more than three runs just three times in his first 13 starts. He had 10 scoreless innings in a game in April, but did not get a win. In May, he allowed more than three runs in a game only once, but did not get a win. In June, the Phillies never scored more than three runs for him, and he did not win.
The winless streak became the centerpiece of Philadelphia's fall to the bottom of the division. Lee thought others were making a bigger deal of the dry spell than he was.
"I try to keep things simple. I try to give my team a chance to win every time I go out there," Lee said. "Sometimes, weird things happen."
But there were troubling signs in his last three starts, including two losses and 16 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings that ballooned his ERA. Lee found himself stuck in too many hitter-friendly counts. That was why the July 4 turnaround was so important for him. He threw 116 pitches, 86 for strikes, in eight innings on a hot July afternoon with nine strikeouts and one walk. It was vintage Lee.
Little things can throw a pitcher off his game. Lee tweaked his mechanics during a bullpen session before his latest start. Maybe it was all he needed to turn things around. Instead of missing with his pitches early in at-bats, Lee was getting ahead in the count. Like most pitchers, 'strike one' was the most important pitch in his sequence against each batter, and proved the key to his success against the Mets. And that has been Lee's formula for success in the past. He leads all Major League pitchers in percentage of first-pitch strikes (70 percent) this season.
"He pitched a Lee game," manager Charlie Manuel said.
It's something that has been missing in action for the Phillies in this troubling season.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.