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Lights-out Lee has made Philly the team to beat again in the NL

NEW YORK -- Before Monday afternoon's series finale against the Mets, Phillies lefty Cole Hamels was sitting at his locker in the visitor's clubhouse at Citi Field discussing with teammate Ben Francisco the topic on the minds of sports fans everywhere -- fantasy football, of course -- when he was asked about Cliff Lee, the man who shares a locker next to him and who has been a fantasy come to life for the Phillies since arriving with Francisco in a late-July trade. Just what did Hamels and the Phils think they were getting when they heard about Lee's impending arrival?

"We expected CC Sabathia: win every game, go nine innings, pitch every three days," said Hamels, who hastened to add "Just kidding."

Hamels may have been joking -- after all, who could reasonably have expected a duplication of Sabathia's domination after he was dealt from Cleveland to Milwaukee last summer? -- but that's exactly what the Phillies have received: a near carbon copy of CC.

Sabathia electrified the baseball world last summer after his trade to the Brewers, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and seven complete games in 17 starts, helping the Brewers survive a wild wild-card race and reach their first postseason in 26 years. Lee, though with substantially less fanfare, has been even better than Sabathia in his first month with his new club. While Sabathia went 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA, three complete games, 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in his first five starts with Milwaukee, Lee has gone 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA, two complete games and only six walks against 39 strikeouts in 40 innings for the Phillies. "I'm doing what I expected of myself, going deep in games and giving us a chance to win," Lee said after beating the Mets with seven strong innings on Monday. "I just didn't expect to do it this well."

Lee has been so good, in fact, that just as Sabathia did a year ago, he has stirred discussion about his worthiness as an NL Cy Young candidate. While Sabathia finished fifth (with one first place vote), his candidacy was legitimized by pitching almost as much in the NL as he did in the AL, making 18 starts with the Indians and 17 with the Brewers. Lee, however, did not arrive in the NL until nearly two-thirds of the season had elapsed, and he dismisses such talk of another Cy with a wave of his hand.

"I don't think that should be allowed," he said. "There's an American League Cy Young and a National League Cy Young. If they had one for both leagues, OK, but they don't. It wouldn't be fair to Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, guys like that. The way they've pitched, to have someone come in and pitch half a year, get half the number of wins and get the awards when they're more deserving, that's not right."

That is unquestionably the prevailing sentiment throughout baseball, but not everyone agrees. And Lee's performance, on the heels of Sabathia's a year ago, will undoubtedly change some minds.

"I definitely think he should be a contender for the Cy Young," Hamels said. "No matter what league you're pitching in, these are major league hitters you're facing and they're trying to beat you. You should be allowed to combine your numbers."

Truth be told, though, it is very unlikely he'll be adding a second Cy Young Award this offseason, as there are many factors working against him. For one, there's the season-long brilliance of Lincecum, the Giants' righty who is the odds-on favorite to repeat as the NL winner. Another obstacle is that unlike Sabathia, Lee has not been asked to get his team to October, only to make sure it stays for awhile once it gets there. The Phillies are the defending world champions. They had a seven-game lead when Lee was acquired, and it was still seven after they dumped the Mets on Monday. The final reason may be that despite pitching in a bigger market, Lee doesn't have nearly the cache of Sabathia to help win him extra votes. If his former Indians teammate looks like a linebacker and punctuates big strikeouts with bursts of emotion rarely seen among baseball players, Lee more resembles a golfer, happy to celebrate his important strikeouts internally before jogging quickly off the mound. While Sabathia possesses a sizzling fastball in the high-90s, ready-made for the highlight reel, Lee's settles in the low-90s -- an effective (but much less sexy) speed zone. Yet combining Lee's fastball with his other pitches -- plus a healthy dose of movement and moxie -- makes for a potent mixture. "He throws with conviction, instead of thinking, 'Maybe I should throw this pitch,' " shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "That sets guys up."

Lee's combined numbers are impressive, but not nearly as striking as they have been since his arrival in the NL. He's 12-9 overall (Sabathia, now with the Yankees, leads the majors with 15 wins) with a 2.63 ERA (seventh in the majors), ranks first in innings pitched (192) and is tied for first in complete games with five. His biggest contributions have been harder to quantify. He has stabilized a somewhat hectic Phillies starting rotation, eased the pressure on a struggling bullpen and supplied the team with a bona fide ace capable of dominating a playoff series. And in doing all that, he has helped transform the Phillies into quite possibly the team to beat in the National League.

Asked what kind of a boost Lee has given his club, manager Charlie Manuel said, "About 20 games worth." And though Manuel, now in his fifth year with the Phillies, refuses to think about a potential postseason rotation fronted by Lee, he does admit, "This is definitely the best starting rotation we've had since I've been here."

"It's mind-boggling," Hamels said of Lee's impact on the club. "He's really become the front-runner all of us can look to when the rest of us falter."

"It certainly has been a breeze with him here," said closer Brad Lidge, who has had to work just twice in Lee's first five games. "Expecting him to go deep into games has become a trend. I'm definitely ready [on days Lee pitches], but so far I've just been able to sit back and watch. By the sixth, seventh, eighth innings, he's cruising."

Lee's mastery is somewhat surprising given the slow start he got off to in Cleveland this season. He gave up 11 earned runs in his first two starts and had a 1-5 record in early May. "He wasn't himself in spring training," said Ben Francisco, who had a front-row seat for Lee's Cy Young-winning season of a year ago. "Obviously, it's a little harder to pitch in the American League because of the designated hitter, so it took him a little while to get going, but he's been pretty good the whole year."

Lee's transition to Philadelphia has been almost perfectly smooth, aside from the occasional slip-up, like when he said of his team, "It's easy to be loose when you're winning the way they are, I mean we are." Despite his pedigree, he remains as much a student as a teacher around the rest of the Phillies staff. "He's really taken over the leadership role," Hamels said. "But he's also very observational. He's gone up to every single guy on the staff, gone up to me, gone up to [J.A.] Happ, gone up to [Jamie] Moyer, and asked everybody for advice. You'll tell him something and he'll go, 'OK, I got it,' and then he'll go out and actually do it. Some guys say they'll do it but when they get in a game they forget it. He takes that info and uses it."

From the moment he arrived in Philly, he has been as quick and efficient as he was on Monday. He got to the clubhouse just over two hours before first pitch, and changed from the low-key attire of the traveling businessman -- slacks, button-down shirt, shiny shoes -- into the equally low-key but more casual work duds that include the red hat. He was gone from his locker as quickly as he had arrived, gone to make another start that may yet make baseball people reconsider Cy Young criteria. Because he left so soon, he missed his teammate Francisco's summation of what Lee has been this season, even if he doesn't get the hardware to prove it: "He's the best pitcher in baseball."

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