Phillies have challenge, but they also have Lee
NEW YORK -- The Phillies still have a mountain to climb in the National League Wild Card race. They still have a number of questions in their lineup, a shaky defense and a negative run differential.
They also still have Cliff Lee. On Monday night that was more than enough. The reigning NL East champions made it five straight wins in Lee's starts with a 3-1 win over the Mets at Citi Field, with Lee going eight typically surgical innings.
Quietly, Lee has put together an astonishing streak of starts in the middle of a mostly disappointing Phillies season. He's one of the biggest reasons for the Phils' September surge, a charge that has them in contention with a little more than two weeks to play.
Over his last five games, Lee has allowed four earned runs, struck out 33 and walked three. Over his last 14, he's piled up 95 strikeouts and nine walks in 100 2/3 innings. He hasn't allowed a home run since Aug. 16, and hasn't walked two batters in the same game or gone fewer than 6 1/3 innings in a start since June 29. That 10.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio is more than 40 percent better than any other starter in either league has managed in the same time frame.
"[I'm] throwing strikes," Lee said. "Staying away from those 2-0, 3-1 counts. If you're not getting into those counts, it's definitely tougher to walk someone. Just being aggressive, throwing strikes, making them swing their way on base. It's easier said than done, but if your mechanics are sound and physically you feel fine, it's definitely easier to do that."
Lee is on another planet, even by his own high standards.
Remember when they were going to trade this guy?
OK, that's not entirely fair. The rumor mill swirled, and teams certainly inquired on Lee's availability, but there was never any real indication that he was seriously close to changing addresses. Besides, it's entirely possible that when the winter comes, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will decide that it makes sense to part with him for a combination of young talent and salary relief.
For the time being, though, the Phillies are enjoying what they have.
"He had command of the game," said manager Charlie Manuel. "He controlled it. He was that good."
Lee outdueled one of the leading candidates for Cy Young honors in the NL. The Mets' R.A. Dickey was very good, but Lee was dominant.
"Cliff's got such a rich pedigree, you know you're in for a pitchers' duel when you're going against him," Dickey said. "The way that he's been throwing the last month, month and a half, you knew it was probably going to be a tight game. So the margin of error decreases when he's pitching for the other team, and tonight that was the case."
Thanks to their win, the Phillies pulled within 3 1/2 games of the second Wild Card in the NL. The odds are still very much against them. They must pass four teams to get into playoff position, and they have 14 games to do so -- none of them against the teams they are chasing (unless you count the Braves, and the chances of catching them are all but zero).
It's still a strange position for the Phils, who are experiencing some mixed baseball emotions. On one hand, any taste of pennant-race pressure is welcome for a club that hasn't missed the postseason since 2006. On the other, there's also an element of playing with house money for a team that was 12 games out in the Wild Card race on Aug. 17.
"A little bit of both," Lee said. "We had high expectations coming into this year. It's not like we were happy to be here. We expected to win this division, but that's not going to happen at this point. If we can get a Wild Card spot, that's really the best we can do now. So fight every day, try to win every game and see what happens. There's a few teams ahead of us that have to lose, too, but we can't control that."
It's such an odd limbo that Manuel spent part of his pregame media session openly discussing possible scenarios for when the Phillies are eliminated. When that time comes, there's a chance that second-base stalwart Chase Utley will move to third in anticipation of a possible 2013 position shift.
Thanks to Lee, that transition will wait at least one more day.
"It's the end of the year," Lee said. "We've got three or four teams ahead of us that we've got to catch and pass. It's definitely not where we want to be, but we've still got a chance. Considering how we played the first half, we're pretty lucky to be where we are right now, to be honest with you. Hopefully, we can get another hot streak going, get five, six wins in a row, and you never know what can happen."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.