He doesn't have the celebrity wife. Nor does he have the perfect hair, the perfect changeup, or the World Series MVP on his resume. No, Cliff Lee is not the fabulous Cole Hamels. But on a chilly Wednesday afternoon in Philadelphia, as winds swirled wildly and napkins and cheesesteak wrappers blew across Citizens Bank Park, the underrated and unflashy 31-year-old left-hander showed why he is the true ace of the defending champs. With two outs in the ninth of a 5-1 game, the chant of "Let's go Lee!" echoed across the ballpark as the lefty buzzed a 94 mph fastball over the plate and past swinging Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins for the final pitch of an exquisite October complete-game gem.
Lee, who began last season barely good enough to be the Indians' fifth starter, is not a complicated man (asked once what his favorite book was, he replied, "I don't think I've read a book in my life, to be honest"), nor is he a complicated pitcher. He gets ahead of hitters with first-pitch fastballs, he mixes in a decent curve, he sprinkles in an average changeup on occasion. In his first career postseason start, Lee, who allowed six hits and one run while striking out five, shut down the National League's second highest scoring offense by keeping it simple. Against a very patient Rockies lineup that works counts and draws walks (Colorado led the NL in free passes), Lee was efficient and in control, needing 113 pitches over nine innings while not walking a Colorado single hitter.
"He hit his spots, he got ahead early, and he kept the ball down," said Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler. "He was pretty tough." Said Colorado manager Jim Tracy, "He was pretty much on corners."
With Ubaldo Jimenez, their best pitcher on the mound, the Rockies, who have struggled mightily against left-handed pitching this year, needed this game. The sun shined brightly on Citizens Bank, but with the fierce winds (according to accuweather.com, gusts of "up to 45 mph") blowing out in the brick bandbox, the stage seemed to be set for a high-scoring Game 1 between the league's top two offenses. But what the 46,452 at the ballpark got instead was a pitcher's duel --- for four and a half innings, at least.
With his childhood idol, Pedro Martinez, watching from the opposing dugout, the Dominican-born Jimenez was dealing early, showing that he is indeed this postseason's hardest thrower: his first four pitches hit 98, 98, 99, and 100 mph on the radar gun, and another in the first inning registered at 101. Jimenez is one of the game's best young pitchers, and he was dominant over his first four innings, striking out three Philly hitters on a nasty curve and one of a perfect changeup. "He definitely had his stuff through the first four, five innings," said Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino. "But we knew he would be tough. We knew we just had to battle." It was a critical eight-pitch at bat by Jayson Werth to start the fifth that seemed to rattle the right-hander for the first time. Werth walked, and five pitches later Raul Ibanez got the first big hit of the day, ripping a changeup to right field to bring Werth home and score the first run of this postseason -- the only run the Phillies would need, it turns out.
The Phillies are a very good all-around team, with few weaknesses, save for one big one: the bullpen. But thanks to Lee, for one game, at least, Phillies fans (and Brad Lidge) could relax. Philly should be considered big favorites to win the series now, as the Phillies appear to have a considerable edge in Game 2, with the October assassin, Cole Hamels, taking the mound. But Hamels, clearly perturbed by the series' early start times ("Being the defending world champs, I think it's kind of a little weird that we kind of get both games at 2 o'clock," he says, "I don't think it's fair"), was 0-6 with a 5.44 ERA in nine daytime starts this season. Colorado, which turns to sinkerballer Aaron Cook in a must-win game. Then again, the Rockies, who have come back from the dead, are used to these kind of high-stakes games. "I think you just tip your cap to [Lee]," said Tracy. "We've been in this position before, where obviously tomorrow is a pretty important game, because you certainly don't want to go to Denver down two games."
Hamels' performance tomorrow will go a long way in revealing how far the Phillies can go this October. If Hamels can rediscover last year's postseason magic, the Phillies, with a new ace on board, will be very tough to beat.