Lee shows new side in first playoff loss
Previously untouchable, Rangers' ace crumbles in Game 1
SAN FRANCISCO -- There was a troubling development for the Texas Rangers on Wednesday night, when it turned out that -- against all previous postseason evidence -- Cliff Lee was human.
Lee's imperfection developed at a less-than-fortuitous occasion, this being Game 1 of the 2010 World Series against the San Francisco Giants, who held on for an 11-7 win. Lee had come to this moment practically untouched by human hands in the postseason, with a 7-0 record in eight starts, including a 1.26 ERA. This October, he had been even better than that, winning three starts and compiling a 0.75 ERA.
Lee's most recent start, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees and baseball's best offense, had been a classic. In eight innings, Lee gave up two hits and one walk while striking out 13. If Lee could do this against the Majors' No. 1 team in runs scored during the regular season, what wonders would he perform against the team ranked 17th in runs, the Giants?
But baseball doesn't always slice itself up into easy pieces like that. Lee was driven from Game 1 on Wednesday night by the Giants in the fifth inning, like a mere mortal. Darren O'Day didn't do him any favors in relief, giving up a three-run homer that brought home two of Lee's runs, but one way or another, the totals did not appear to the work of Lee -- 4 2/3 innings, seven runs (six earned) and eight hits. Only the one walk and seven strikeouts seemed to resemble Lee's usual postseason work or meet the generally stratospheric level of expectations that greet his starts.
The problem for the Rangers is that when you calculate the ways that they win the World Series, the formula always includes Cliff Lee going 2-0.
This was not just a hopeful supposition. The guy had never lost a postseason start. And he had already gone 2-0 in a World Series, just last autumn against the Yankees.
It was beating the Yankees so handily that added to the living legend. Adding a Sept. 12 start, Lee's past two outings against them had resulted in one run on four hits over 16 innings. An aura of postseason invincibility had settled over Lee, and justifiably so. The reasonable expectation, based on all of the recent history, was that the Rangers would win the postseason games, including the World Series games, which Lee started. That formula worked twice against Tampa Bay and once against New York this postseason.
But you do not get to take a 1-0 lead in the World Series based on previous numbers. The Giants' hitters as a group are certainly not as renowned as their Yankees counterparts, but the Giants' hitters are still playing in the World Series, while their Yankees counterparts are not. Here, San Francisco took advantage of the openings offered to it by Lee in the third and fifth innings, tying the game with two runs in the third and breaking it wide open with six runs in the fifth.
Second baseman Freddy Sanchez was particularly troublesome for Lee, hitting three consecutive doubles. That sort of thing seems to be beyond the realm of reality with Cliff Lee pitching in the postseason, but this was the night when that reality finally assumed a two-sided nature.
Nobody's perfect. This is one of the fundamental beauties of baseball. It is an endless pursuit of perfection by human beings who cannot be endlessly perfect. The best of them come up short on occasion, just as Cliff Lee did Wednesday night. It is just that the Fall Classic is a particularly public and important place to take one on the chin.
Lee was a stand-up guy about it after the game, just as he typically is on the relatively rare occasions when he has to explain defeat. In the visitors' clubhouse at AT&T Park, he patiently explained to scores of questioners that he did not have his typical command, and unlike in other starts during which he struggled early, the left-hander wasn't able to find it.
"I didn't work ahead in the count aggressively," Lee said. "I missed up. I missed over the plate. Professional hitters take advantage of that stuff."
The two runs in the third might have been chalked up to "broken-bat hits" and "little flares," Lee said, but the six-run outpouring in the fifth did not allow for an easy explanation.
"That inning, they started squaring stuff up," Lee said. "It's not acceptable for me; I've got to do a better job of damage control. But you've got to give credit to the hitters."
The rest of the Rangers could only express their continued faith in Lee, because based on his previous performances, that is the appropriate reaction.
"Obviously, we have a lot of confidence in Cliff," said third baseman Michael Young. "We're looking forward to his next start."
The Rangers have bounced back from deep disappointment before, most recently after a gut-wrenching Game 1 loss to the Yankees in the ALCS. That loss was hard to take, but the Rangers won the next three games and eventually the series.
Here, they have seen their ace, Cliff Lee, previously invincible in the postseason, come up human at the most inconvenient time. You could wager with a surplus of confidence on Lee being very tough in his next start. But before that can happen, it will be up to the 24 Rangers not named Cliff Lee to get this Series headed back in their direction.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.