UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Five Cuts: Lackluster Lee, Rangers face uphill battle after Game 1 loss

SAN FRANCISCO -- Somebody held up a sign behind home plate at AT&T Park during the late innings of Game 1 that said, in Giants black and orange, "We're Due." And so, in a more diabolical way, was Cliff Lee. The man who put the "O" in October -- there is no way to massage this -- was downright dreadful. Why? It happens.

"It happens to everyone," Giants outfielder Mark DeRosa said. "It happens to the best. He's a great pitcher, but nobody is a machine."

Catcher Bengie Molina, like the rest of us, has been spoiled by the seemingly mechanized brilliance of Lee. I asked him after Game 1 if Lee had ever thrown this poorly, except for when he battled a back injury in August. "No, I don't remember a game when he was healthy and threw so many balls in the middle of the plate," Molina said.

Look at it this way: Lee had been unbeatable in the postseason in eight starts. And yet only one pitcher among the 212 starts in World Series Game 1 history ever gave up more runs than the seven Mr. Unbeatable coughed up last night: Guy Bush, way back in 1932 for the Cubs, when he yielded eight.

But the seven runs ties Lee with nine others, including those whose names remind us that even the best cannot be great every time out: Andy Pettitte, the winningest postseason pitcher in history, Curt Schilling and Orel Hershiser, two of the most successful postseason pitchers of the modern era, and Cy Young himself. Go figure.

How did it happen? As Giants hitting coach Hensley Muelens told me before the series, the San Francisco hitters took an aggressive approach against the strike-throwing Lee. But that alone didn't do the trick. Lee's stuff was short. His off-speed pitches were so poor that Lee threw only three curveballs and changeups for strikes, and he had to abandon them. The Giants hitters could go up to the plate ruling out off-speed pitches.

"That was exactly my approach," Giants outfielder Cody Ross said. "I definitely wasn't concerned about the off-speed stuff."

Lee was reduced to a fastball/cutter pitcher, but his cutter lacked bite. It drifted over the middle of the plate rather than diving to the corners. The Giants swatted 22 foul balls off of Lee, making every out that much harder to get, because he didn't have the stuff to end at-bats quickly.

"They made some great adjustments," Molina said. "The adjustments they made were hitting mistakes."

Lee never found his equilibrium on the mound. He hit a batter, Andres Torres, with an 0-and-2 pitch -- something he hadn't done all year. He spit back a 2-0 lead. Usually a quick, diligent worker, he pawed constantly at the dirt on the mound with his spikes, as if trying to unearth answers from it.

"It's unacceptable as far as I'm concerned," Lee said. "I know I have to do better."

Typically Lee has three or four put-away pitches, all of which he can command. And on a night when home plate umpire John Hirschbeck was willing to give pitchers the outside corner, Lee could do nothing about it. There was not a single pitch in his quiver that could rescue him.

"I threw a lot of balls over the heart of the plate," he said.

Why? It wasn't the extra rest. It wasn't the Giants' approach, though give them credit for hammering the treats Lee left over the plate. It wasn't the home crowd. It was nothing more than the odds catching up to Cliff Lee.

One game changed the entire tenor of the series. The Giants won a game, but they also won a psychological battle over the Rangers: They diminished the aura of Lee.

What sport is more the prankster than baseball? Baseball is a shell game, a three-card monte we can't resist. We think we can figure it out, measuring its patterns and following its narratives, and yet all of it becomes merely the set-up to yet another gotcha! moment in which the sport laughs at our presumptions. And that's exactly the way World Series Game 1 arrived.

Two Cy Young Award winners went to the mound with every indication, especially from the way the Giants ration run scoring, that the Year of the Pitcher would beget the World Series of the Pitcher. Instead, this is what we get:

• The first World Series Game 1 since 1964 in which both starting pitchers gave up eight hits or more (Whitey Ford, Ray Sadecki).

• Only the seventh World Series Game 1 ever in which both starters coughed up four runs or more -- the first time since the 2004 debacle with Woody Williams and Tim Wakefield.

• The Giants had scored more than four runs in a game just once in the past 31 days -- and they hang 11 in a game started by Lee.

It was the kind of game no one saw coming -- unfortunately, it was also the last kind of game baseball needed to help sell this World Series. Twelve pitchers; three hours, 36 minutes; 22 plate appearances in which the ball wasn't put into play; a one-sided game except for a ninth-inning mirage; the one ascendant star, Lee, knocked from leading man status; baserunning and defensive blunders galore . . . the drama had better come back quickly.

What you didn't get to see or feel by watching the telecast last night was the party that broke out in the bottom of the eighth inning at AT&T Park. They played "Lights" by Journey, the rock ballad about the Bay Area, and the place brimmed to the lighttowers with pure sing-along joy.

It wasn't so much the song itself as much as it was providing a feel-good soundtrack to what has become a wave of confidence that has overcome this team and this city. The 8-4 lead helped, too. Properly jacked, the Giants promptly tacked on another three spot to bust open the game.

See, the Giants and their fans have taken perverse pleasure in the sheer difficulty of their games -- 6 ½ games back in August, they didn't so much storm back as they clawed back, each game seemingly more tense than the last. Thus, the legions of Giants fans adopted "torture" as their dark sense of pride.

So when a blowout came, like a snow day to a grade schooler, the place let loose with happiness and wonder. They could watch Giants baseball with a resting pulse rate. Who knew? And in the World Series, no less.

Something special is happening in San Francisco, something, unlike 2002 when a pennant was built on the too-broad back of Barry Bonds, that invites guilt-free investment. People lined up at 2 a.m. -- 2 a.m.! -- to grab a spot that allowed them to watch Game 1 for a few innings through the screens in the rightfield wall.

There is a mojo building that the players feel. "That we believe we will win," DeRosa said. If you watched the Giants take six of their first seven postseason wins by one run and then turn a game started by Lee into a blowout, you understood what was behind the moment of "Lights." This series has too much baseball left in it to know how it will end, but the symbiosis between a city and its adopted sons made for one powerful force. Today the sun shines on the bay.

You could not invent a worse scenario for the Texas Rangers to begin their first World Series. This was far worse than ALCS Game 1 and that bullpen implosion. This was a Cliff Lee game, which carries far more psychological weight than any other. Here is the inventory of the damage done to Texas in Game 1:

• The armor of invincibility for Lee is gone. The Giants are the first team that knows, not just believes, it can get to him in the postseason.

• They should have lost the bat of Vladimir Guerrero from their lineup -- that would be obvious to everyone but the skipper, Ron Washington. There is no way Washington should put that sideshow out in rightfield again, but when asked about reconsidering Guerrero in rightfield, Washington said, "No, I don't. A couple of balls got by him."

I said before the series Washington was better off trying to hide Guerrero in leftfield than rightfield at AT&T Park. It was a disaster waiting to happen, a truck accident you could see coming a mile away. Guerrero should have played himself into a pinch-hitter, leaving Nelson Cruz to rightfield and David Murphy to left.

• Their bullpen, thanks to more curious management from Washington, is in poor shape for Game 2. Washington used Alexi Ogando, his best set-up arm, for two innings in a game he trailed by four runs. Here is the grand total of times Ogando has pitched this year the day after throwing at least two innings: zero.

Compounding the aggressive use of Ogando, Washington made the completely contradictory move of then conceding the game by running out Mark Lowe and Michael Kirkman, the least important arms in his bullpen. Sure enough, the game blew up on Washington, the 8-4 game he left in the hands of Ogando swollen to 11-4.

The Rangers are not going to win the World Series by getting Lowe and Kirkman sharp. The guys he needs are Derek Holland, Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz. Now Washington goes into World Series Game 2 with Holland having eight days off, Oliver having eight days off and Feliz having five days off.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, meanwhile, ran all of his key relievers into the game, including closer Brian Wilson. Bochy continues his impressive postseason run of outmanaging the other dugout.

Freddy Sanchez is on fire (well, except for his wayward baserunning). He smacked four hits and drove in three runs, joining Mel Ott (1933) as the only players to do so in their first World Series game. He is the only second basemen with such a game at any point in their World Series careers . . . The Rangers' Elvis Andrus, 22, became the eighth youngest leadoff hitter in World Series history, and the youngest since Tony Kubek of the Yankees in 1957 . . . Rangers third baseman Michael Young had a very rough night, his range and reaction an issue in the field . . . Lee did whack a double. He joined John Smoltz as the only pitchers with a stolen base and an extra-base hit in the postseason . . . Ian Kinsler at times can look like a T-Ball player running the bases: keep running until you get tagged out. He made the first out of the eighth, down 8-4, with the inexcusable mistake of rounding first base too far, providing first baseman Aubrey Huff with the chance to tag him out . . . Can we call an official moratorium on giving teams credit and honor for "battling back"? As if simply quitting a World Series game is an option?

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.