With cowbells clanging and the full-throated roar of the home faithful echoing across the dome, Clifton Phifer Lee of Benton, Ark., cool as always, stepped onto the mound at Tropicana Field and exhaled. The pitcher rocked back and unleashed a 93 mph fastball: a called strike, over the heart of the plate, on Rays leadoff hitter Jason Bartlett. The dome went silent. And so began yet another October masterpiece from baseball's itinerant ace.
In Game 5 of the Rangers-Rays AL Division Series, the night he pitched Texas into their first American League Championship Series, the lefthander showed why there is no better big-game pitcher in baseball right now. Lee allowed one run in nine innings and struck out 11, the most in a postseason winner-take-all game. He threw 120 pitches -- 90 for strikes -- in the 5-1 victory. He struck out 10 or more without walking a hitter for the fourth time in the playoffs. (Only three other pitchers in history have ever done that once.) He dominated with a masterful array of fastballs, cutters and a curveball that on this night dropped out of sight like a pool ball into a pocket.
"We had an early chance to do some things, but once he settles in ... " said Rays manager Joe Maddon, not needing to finish the sentence. "He really had a good cutter and whatever else that was going on tonight. He brought [those pitches] into the game plan more often and was very effective."
In Game 1, Lee dominated with a steady diet of fastballs. In Game 5, his curveball --- a pitch he threw less than six percent of the time over the regular season --- was the difference. Lee, however, said throwing his curve more wasn't part of the game plan; rather, he felt the pitch working as he warmed up in the bullpen before the game. At one point in the middle innings, he used the curveball to finish off seven of 13 hitters --- the last one, Carlos Pena, flailed helplessly to end the sixth inning on a 78 mph curve with a filthy 15-inch break.
"I didn't walk anybody -- that was a huge part of it," Lee said. "Obviously a big part of their game is running the bases and being aggressive on the base path and making things happen with hit and runs and bunts and stuff like that. So by not walking anybody, it kind of eliminated that stuff. And [I was] just staying out of the heart of the plate, mixing speeds and mixing it in and out, up and down, changing speeds and trying to keep them off balance."
Lee is the new Mr. October: he is 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA in seven postseason starts, and he is a big reason why the Rangers have a chance to dethrone the defending champion Yankees --- the team the free agent-to-be may very well be pitching for next October. After they landed him in a July trade from Seattle, the Rangers front office began crunching numbers in what they call The Cliff Lee Model --- a payroll projection based on what they believe it will take to sign the 2008 Cy Young winner. That projection surely rises with each of Lee's sparkling performances.
With their first postseason series win, the Rangers have arrived as an American League superpower. Over the three years since the franchise's landmark Mark Teixeira trade, GM Jon Daniels has infused the organization with the best young talent in the game. The new Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg ownership group, as well as a mammoth TV deal, also positions the franchise to be a force for years to come, with or without Lee.
But for now, Lee and the Rangers have their eye on the Yankees and the ALCS, which begins Friday in Arlington.
"It was a lot of fun, I enjoyed it," Lee said late Tuesday night, of his latest masterpiece. "We're onto the next stage. And I can't wait to face the Yankees."