Lee conjures memories of other Lefty
New Phillies ace on roll like Hall of Famer Carlton
Not since the days of Steve Carlton have the Phillies had a pitcher as dominant as Cliff Lee.
I remember when Carlton pitched, there was a certain air of confidence on the ballclub. The players expected to win -- even in 1972 when the team was dreadful, but Lefty won 27 games. The Phillies won just 59.
If acquiring Carlton from the St. Louis Cardinals at the start of Spring Training in 1972 was one of the best trades in Phillies history, getting Lee on July 29 from Cleveland is right up there.
Lee's presence on the mound, his fast work, his intensity and focus are very similar to Carlton's. No matter what the circumstance, I never saw Steve rattled. He refused to be distracted.
Lee, also a lanky left-hander, showed that same trait on Monday when the New York Mets scored two unearned runs in the first inning. He just asked for the ball and for the next six innings blanked New York. Many pitchers would fall apart after such an inauspicious beginning.
Philadelphia won, 6-2, at Citi Field.
Lee is now 5-0 with the Phillies and has a scary 0.68 earned run average. Including his last three with the Indians, he's won eight consecutive starts.
The Phillies knew they were getting a top-of-the rotation pitcher when they landed Lee, the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner.
But he has pitched even better and been more dominant than they dreamed he would be.
The same was true with then-20-game winner Carlton when the Cardinals sent him to the Phillies for Rick Wise on Feb. 25, 1972. Lefty went on to win 241 games and four Cy Young Awards with them during 15 years (1972-86) en route to the Hall of Fame.
In 1972, Carlton was amazing. During one period, he won 15 games in a row and when the season ended had a 1.97 ERA, eight shutouts and 30 complete games.
In a recent interview, Carlton told me after winning 20 games with the Cardinals in '71, he started thinking about winning 25 games in '72.
"That was my new goal, like 20 was in '71," he said. "For four months I prepared for the next season mentally, but with the Cardinals. I was practicing what was called the concept of reality. But when I got traded on the first day of Spring Training, I knew I was going to a team that wasn't winning. I had four months invested in preparing for the season, but that was with the Cardinals, who were winning a lot of games then."
He said if his theory worked as well as it did in winning 20 games, "I decided to push it to 25. I was doubtful, but reasoned it [the theory] worked in St. Louis, I'll just dig in harder in Philadelphia. That's why my reality got more intense in '72 than it was in '71. I was with a team that wasn't perceived to win 90 to 100 games as the Cardinals were. The effort was to increase last year's performance."
Carlton had uncanny pinpoint control that season.
"It was just extreme focus and intent, such an elevated level. I had never been through that before," he said. "What happens is when you're like that, you control your environment. Everybody around me was more elevated."
Carlton, like Lee, refused to be distracted.
"If you're going out to do a job, I wanted to do it at the highest level," he said. "To be distracted is not giving your attention to what you're supposed to do -- to represent the team and yourself.
"It takes a level of concentration. Your will is what your intent, your mission is. For me it wasn't so much in striking guys out, but to win. In that game against San Francisco [on April 25, 1972], I used just 112-113 pitches to strike out 14 batters. That was the economy of effort."
It was in that game Carlton pitched a one-hitter. A leadoff single by Chris Speier was the only hit allowed by Lefty, who walked just one.
Carlton says when he went to the mound, "I had already won the game. Today, that's called quantum entanglement. You're entangling a thought into the future. As you go through the linear concept of that reality, it has already unfolded for you."
Lee's words are different, but the theory -- and the result -- the same.
"I expect to go out there every game and give the team a chance to win," Lee said Monday. "I'm doing what I expect of myself. I don't know if I expected it to go this well, but I do expect to be successful every time I take the mound."
Unlike Carlton in his prime, Lee speaks with the media. Carlton said he feels he was burned early in his Phillies career and stopped talking to reporters.
"It [media] became an obstacle," he said. "My intent was to perform for the people and the team. It became a distraction because of the insanity of writing about your personal life.
"It was a distraction and I had to make it go away. When I did it [stopped talking], I knew I had to work harder because I knew the media was going to come after me because they didn't have access. When I stopped talking, in my mind I said, 'Watch this. All of a sudden I'm going to become a mystery.'
"Sure enough, Sports Illustrated came out and wrote, 'Mystery and Mastery.' I was the same guy, but you didn't have access."
Carlton says he was getting angry "because I was starting to think about things I shouldn't have been thinking of while I was pitching, like what's going to happen after the game? I said this has got to stop, because I wasn't doing my job."
Actually, there's really very little mystery to any pitcher who throws the baseball as well as Carlton and Lee.
That's what makes them so special, so similar.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.