UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Phillies' season rides on the arm of preternaturally calm ace Lee

PHILADELPHIA -- Earlier this week, Jamie Moyer was lamenting that nobody just sits around and talks about baseball anymore. So Jamie Moyer, 46 years old and now in his 23rd season and without much else to do since he is not on the Phillies' World Series roster, decided that he would sit around and talk baseball. And so that is what he did during the Phillies off-day last Friday. Talk. About pitching in general -- how to throw a slider, why cutters can be effective without hurting your arm and the difference between being a pitcher and a thrower -- and about Cliff Lee in particular.

How he was as much a fan of Lee's as an opponent as he is as a teammate ("When he faced him, I hoped I wasn't pitching so I could just watch"), about why Lee is so tough to hit ("He just comes at you, and at you, and at you") and finally, whether he truly is as calm as the catatonic state he has shown the world this postseason would suggest. "It's almost like there's no heartbeat. It's like a flatline -- sssss" hissed Moyer, sweeping his arm straight out in front of him.

Moyer was exaggerating, but not by much. This is, after all, the same pitcher who was so good in Game 1 of the World Series that neither the Yankees offense nor New York's notorious rush hour traffic that nearly caused him to miss his start could unnerve him. But as it turns out, Moyer's flatline gesture is an apt description of the rest of his team as Lee prepares to take the mound at Citizen's Bank Park on Monday evening in Game 5. The Phillies, who now trail 3 games to 1 after a heartbreaking loss in Game 4, are not dead yet but they barely have a pulse, and the man who will be asked to jumpstart them back to life in this Series is Lee.

To date in this postseason, Lee has given the Phillies everything they could have asked, but he did not demand to give them the one thing they didn't dare ask: that he take the ball in Game 4. Lee said he would pitch whenever called upon, and manager Charlie Manuel said after Game 4 that even had Lee insisted he get the start, they would not have changed their plan to go with Joe Blanton, owing to Lee's non-existent track record on three days' rest. But it is clear that the Phillies gambled and lost in bypassing Lee for the much more mediocre Blanton.

How effective Lee would have been is debatable, but what isn't is that once it was decided that asking him to pitch on short rest for the first time in his career was not a good idea, the Phillies were placed in a virtual must-win situation in Game 4. They didn't win, and now the Phillies must find a way to win three consecutive games in this Series knowing that they will only have the man who has unquestionably been the game's hottest pitcher in the postseason on the mound to start one of them.

On Monday, the Phillies will need yet another stellar performance from Lee, much as he has given them in each of his four previous postseason starts, to ensure that a parade up the Canyon of Heroes isn't the only baseball-related activity in New York this week. To do so, he must silence a recently rampaging Yankees offense that has finally awakened over the past two days, all the while knowing that behind him is a suddenly shaky bullpen. In short, Lee is all that is standing between the Phillies and the death of their season.

It is telling, perhaps, that even as they sit comfortably with a 3-1 lead, the Yankees are being as aggressive with their best pitchers as the Phillies have been passive with theirs. Despite having the luxury of giving A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte the chance to pitch with extra rest in this postseason, manager Joe Girardi is going for the kill on Monday night by starting Burnett in Game 5, much to the pitcher's delight. "Without sounding too confident, I liked when I did it in the past," said Burnett, who is 4-0 with a 2.33 ERA in four such starts, none of which have occurred since 2008. "I felt great when I did it in the past. There's something about going on three days, it's hard to overthrow, it's hard to overdo it. I loved it."

Rather than trying to deflect the magnitude of the moment, Burnett is embracing it. "I think [in the ALCS] I was a little too calm and tried to slow down too much," he said. "A pitcher like me has to go out with a little more emotion." Later, he added, "I'd lie if I said I wasn't going to go home and think about it all night. I'm not going to take it as just one ordinary game or another start. It's the World Series Game 5 and I'm the starter. That's what it's all about."

That is in telling contrast to the toned-down approach offered by Lee, who this postseason has been as tough to hit on the mound as he has been to get to know off it. Displaying the same preternatural calmness that has been his calling card all of his career, Lee refused to give in to the sense that this latest "Most Important Game Ever" is at all different from the hundreds of games that have come before it. After trying to explain for five minutes how he will not change his approach or his thinking to suit this game, he finally gave up. "To me, it's the same as every other game," he said. "I mean, I don't know how much more clear I can be about that. It's still the same game."

Lee can deflect the pressure all he wants, but he is smart enough to know that it is not just any other game. The Phillies' season rides on his left arm, and if ever there were a time for Lee to be nervous, this is it. With the way Lee has pitched of late, the Phillies will have to be considered favorites in Game 5. But there is some concern. The Yankees have accumulated 15 runs, 17 hits and eight walks in their past 15 innings at the plate. They have rediscovered their patience and plate discipline, have gotten a pair of enormous hits from Alex Rodriguez and have begun to bunch hits and runs together. They have now scored multiple runs five times in the past two games, after failing to do so at all in Games 1 and 2.

It is a situation reminiscent of 1993, when the Phillies entered Game 5 of the World Series trailing an American League East powerhouse 3 games to 1, coming off a disheartening Game 4 loss and asking their ace to keep their season alive. Then, it was Curt Schilling, who before he was a blogger -- even before there were blogs -- was an October savior that predated bloody socks with Boston or dynamic duos in the desert. In that critical World Series game 16 years ago, Schilling delivered an epic performance, shutting out the defending world champion Blue Jays on just five hits, one day after they had scored 15 runs. That he did so in an amazing 148 pitches -- the highest single-game total in the World Series in more than two decades -- only added to its impressiveness. "I knew this team would go to Toronto based on what I did," Schilling said that night.

The same holds true for Lee on Monday. The Yankees are going back to New York in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The only question now is if the Phillies will be joining them.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.