NEW YORK -- The outcome of Game 3 of the ALCS on Monday night was no longer in doubt by the top of the ninth, when 10 Rangers produced seven hits and six runs against a trio of Yankees relievers to extend their lead to 8-0. It had not been in doubt for a while. The outcome had not been in doubt, in fact, since the game was technically only 1/27th complete, since Josh Hamilton hit Andy Pettitte's 16th pitch over the right field wall to give the Rangers and Cliff Lee a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Hamilton did not even put a good swing on the ball. Pettitte's cutter had fooled him, he later admitted, and he was just able to get his bat's barrel out over the plate and give it an off-balance yank with his wrists, but when you're the 6-4, 240-pound Hamilton and you're playing in a stadium with a right field porch as short as Yankee Stadium's, that is a confluence of factors that can sometimes result in a home run. "Hung a cutter," said Pettitte, who was on Monday both typically brilliant (7 IP, 5 hits, only those two earned runs) and nowhere brilliant enough. "At the time, you don't think that's going to win the ballgame."
It soon became apparent that Hamilton's half-swing homer would do just that. It is one thing to earn a reputation, and another to maintain it, and entering the evening Lee was billed as a postseason assassin, due to his six wins, zero losses and 1.44 ERA in the first seven playoff starts of his career. On Monday night against the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium, he was probably better than in any of those. He retired the first 11 Yankees he faced, and was so plainly dominant that when the 11th of those Yankees, Nick Swisher, managed to work a 3-and-1 count against him, the hometown fans rose to their feet and cheered wildly, desperately. Swisher struck out.
To Lee, the Yankees tried to do what the Yankees do to every starter that they don't immediately chew up -- to work deep into counts in order wear him down to the point of exhaustion, in order to feast on him or the soft underbelly of the relievers that follow him -- but it didn't work. They made him throw 43 pitches through three innings, and 65 pitches through four (Swisher's 11-pitch at bat in the fourth seemed as if it might, at some point down the line, bear fruit, though it didn't). But on this night, Lee had 122 in him (and probably more, said manager Ron Washington, had the Rangers not blown things open in the ninth), the 122nd a 93-mile-an-hour fastball that Brett Gardner took for a called strike three. The pitch was two miles-an-hour faster than Lee's first pitch, also a fastball. In his eight innings, Lee allowed two hits, one walk, and no runs, with 13 strikeouts. Two pitchers in baseball history have now struck out 10 or more batters in three consecutive playoff games: Bob Gibson and Lee. Among players who have started more than five postseason games, there are only two who now have better career ERAs than Lees 1.26: Sandy Koufax, and Christy Mathewson. Why, someone asked Derek Jeter, was Cliff Lee so effective? "Cause he's good," Jeter said, simply.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi entered the postgame interview room late Monday with a 2-1 deficit in the series, and while he spoke, a little crankily, about Lee ("He is human. He has given up a run before," he said), the first question he was asked concerned Tuesday evening's starter. Would it still be A.J. Burnett, he of the 10-15 record and 5.26 ERA, Girardi was asked?
"Yes," Girardi said.
Did that decision require any sort of thought process?
"No," Girardi said.
The latter answer is more difficult to believe than the former. Girardi said on Sunday that he didn't want to put CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Pettitte on three days rest by skipping the scuffling Burnett ("I haven't pitched in a long time, so I haven't struggled in a long time," Burnett said earlier on Monday, rather honestly), but he wouldnt necessarily have had to do that. What Girardi might have done was start Sabathia in Game 4, and then, assuming the Yankees won that one against Tommy Hunter, he could have used Burnett in Game 5, and had Hughes and Pettitte on normal rest for Games 6 and 7. If Sabathia were to lose tomorrow night, then the Yankees would be on the ropes anyway, and who would care about normal rest?
But Girardi has insisted for a week now that Game 4 would be started by Burnett, and despite a widespread belief among fans and members of the media that this would only hold true if the Yankees found themselves in a best-case scenario (a 3-0 lead), if not a better-case scenario (Yankees 2, Rangers 1), it seems to be so even though the Yankees trail.
It is not impossible to imagine that Burnett and the Yankees might win Game 4. Hunter, after all, doesn't strike many batters out (just 68 in 128 innings this season). He is the type of pitcher against whom the Yankees typically do very well and he was rather easily handled by the Rays in the ALDS. Burnett, after all, has pitched strongly against Texas this year (a 2.50 ERA and a .232 batting average against in 18 innings over three starts), and he did put together three quality starts in last year's playoffs.
The problem for the Yankees is that Burnett and the Yankees now have to win Game 4. If they do not, then their only chance to advance to the World Series will come in a Game 7, and that means that they will have to see Lee again. That means, in other words, that a loss on Tuesday night will for all intents and purposes equate with a loss in the series.
"I do the same thing every game," Lee said on Monday night. For the Yankees, thats a terrifying thought.