Lee gives Rangers championship swagger
ST. PETERSBURG -- On July 9, roughly five million New Yorkers had the same response to the news that Cliff Lee was moving from Seattle to Texas: "You gotta be kiddin' me!"
Lee seemingly had been ticketed for the South Bronx, where he would pair up with former Indians teammate CC Sabathia. But Lee got rerouted to the Lone Star State when the Rangers agreed to ship the player the Mariners apparently craved: first baseman Justin Smoak.
It was the day the Big Apple moaned and Texas became a legitimate World Series title contender, an outfit with no limits.
"It was the moment of truth for us," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said, his team having taken Game 1 of the American League Division Series from the Rays, 5-1, behind Lee. "Are we in it to win it or make a living? Which side of the fence are you going to be on? Everybody got on the right side of the fence."
Lee had shown 12 months ago, dealing for the Phillies, that he's a man who thrives on high stakes. It's in his DNA. He snuffed the Rockies and Dodgers and tried to beat the Yankees by himself in the World Series, but the Phillies were unable to start him more than twice. Yanks 4, Lee 2.
After 13 starts for the Mariners, Lee moved to Texas. He struggled through some back issues, got healthy and found what he needed in his final four starts. He came to Florida to show how it's done, deliver the goods.
Texas doesn't know how far Lee can take his new team, or how long he'll be around. But you can't get to the Promised Land without that first step -- and it was taken with a confident swagger by the AL West champions on Wednesday at Tropicana Field.
The Rangers watched Lee strike out Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli after yielding three singles and then followed his lead, creating an air of doom inside the dome.
Lee had a shutout when he left a fastball in the wheelhouse of Ben Zobrist in the seventh. Zobrist put it in the seats in right, but it was too little and too late for the Rays. They threatened in the ninth against Neftali Feliz only to go down in a blaze of 99-mph heaters.
The Rays understand the imperative of seizing Game 2 on Thursday. They don't want to go to Texas having to sweep two games in order to arrange a decisive Game 5 back home.
"To get out of that with the zero was huge," Lee said of the first inning. "It was a momentum builder for our team, and our offense responded."
Lee's postseason dominance
This is what the great ones do in October. They inspire teammates, lifting them to heights they might not have imagined possible.
Rangers right fielder Jeff Francoeur watched Lee bound into the dugout after surviving that first-inning crisis and saw something in his eyes.
"You could tell on his face in the dugout," Francoeur said, grinning. "It said, 'This thing's over,' He could tell he had his stuff."
Francoeur was referring to Game 1, not the series.
Francoeur followed Ian Kinsler's leadoff single in the second against David Price with an RBI double to center. When Bengie Molina dropped a single into right, the Rangers had a 2-0 lead.
Homers by Nelson Cruz in the third and Molina in the fourth and Vlad Guerrero's RBI double on another rocket to center in the fifth had Lee in cruise control.
"He has so much stuff, so many things he can do," Molina said of Lee. "I've never caught anyone like him. He's unique. This kid is amazing. The biggest thing he has is his mindset. He trusts his stuff. We discussed what we wanted to do, and he went out and did it."
Darren O'Day, Darren Oliver and Feliz finished the job after Lee walked off with 10 strikeouts, having yielded five hits and no walks.
Lee isn't overpowering or overwhelming. He's as precise as a diamond-cutter and knows exactly what he wants to do with every delivery. He comes into focus as a right-handed Greg Maddux, a notion the great one's brother, now coaching Lee, finds to be on the money.
"He comes right at you, makes you swing the bat," Mike Maddux said. "He doesn't beat himself."
Lee sees something fundamental in his ability to rise to the moment.
"I like competing, period," he said. "And I hate to lose. When you're playing against the best of the best, that's what it's all about."
The Maddux comparison caught him off guard.
"I wish I were a left-handed Greg Maddux," Lee said. "I don't know if I would go that far, though. But if I come close to the career he had, I'd be thrilled. I could only hope and wish that my career turns into something like his has, or did."
Lee took an instant liking to the Rangers' atmosphere when he arrived from Seattle, where darkness had descended early and hung around.
"It didn't take long," Lee said. "I mean, within the first couple days. It's definitely a good group of guys, loose, everybody pulls for each other, everybody gets along with each other. Everybody can crack on each other and mess around.
"You know, that's the way it should be. That's the recipe for a good team, and that's definitely what's going on here in Texas. Yeah, I enjoy it here in Texas. It's been a good ride so far, and yeah, I could see myself being here in the future. But only time will tell on that. I'm not going to corner myself into anything with that."
Lee is heading into free agency in his prime, one of the five premier starters in the game by any measure. Certainly the Yankees and the other big spenders are aware of what he can bring.
"He made himself more money today," Francoeur said, beaming.
Rangers manager Ron Washington recalls being "overwhelmed and elated" when he learned that Lee was coming to Texas.
"We knew right there that our front office -- [general manager] Jon Daniels, [president] Nolan Ryan and everyone involved -- was serious about what we had set out to do in Spring Training," Washington said. "So it made it a reality."
The Rangers didn't stop there. They added Molina, with his World Series ring from 2002 with the Angels, to nurse along a young staff, and they added firepower in Francoeur and Jorge Cantu.
From Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas, Lee has traveled the land these past two seasons. He'll settle down for a good spell when he makes his big decision this winter, but there is big game to hunt now.
"Hopefully," Lee said, "we do some damage here in the postseason, win the World Series. That will make things a lot easier for me."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.