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CAN YOU SAY CLIFF HANGER?

Nov. 01, 2010
Nov. 01, 2010

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Nov. 1, 2010

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CAN YOU SAY CLIFF HANGER?

History hasn't been kind to San Francisco or Texas. But both teams retooled on the fly this season, setting up an evenly matched, if unlikely, Fall Classic showdown. The difference maker: the Rangers' ace for the ages

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 2010 issue

Cliff Lee wears forbearance like the wisp of the whiskers below his lower lip. At work or at rest, while crushing a Sodoku puzzle or an online chess opponent, Lee has the cool, understated mien of someone handed the answers to a test the night before the exam. Control, that temperamental temptress all pitchers woo, is his greatest conquest.

Last year, in a taxi on his way to start the World Series opener at Yankee Stadium, Lee found Manhattan traffic so hopelessly gnarled that he jumped out of the cab mid-block and headed on foot for a subway station, though he wasn't quite sure where he was going. Two trains, a call to the visiting clubhouse manager and a walk of several blocks later, Lee, typically a pious disciple of routine, walked into the Phillies' clubhouse an hour late. "Most guys would be all hot and bothered and be saying, 'You wouldn't believe what happened,' " Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer says. "Not Cliff. None of us even knew anything was up. You couldn't tell anything with Cliff. It was just another day."

All Lee did that night was become the first pitcher in World Series history to spin a complete game with no walks, no earned runs and 10 strikeouts. "You never see him upset," Moyer adds. "You never see him angry. He just goes with the flow."

Lee is back in the World Series, this time as a Ranger. The lefthander is more than the central character of this Series: He looms above it like the Sun above the Earth. There are only the days Lee is scheduled to pitch (Game 1, on Wednesday at San Francisco's AT&T Park, and Game 5 in Texas on Monday) and the days spent waiting for him to get the ball again. He has joined the likes of Bob Gibson in 1968, the year he had a 1.12 ERA; Sandy Koufax in 1963, following his breakout 25--5 season; and Christy Mathewson in 1905, flush with 31 wins and a 1.28 ERA heading into the second World Series.

Lee has tiptoed as close to the edge of perfection as any pitcher before him, especially come October. In eight career postseason starts, including three gems this year, Lee is 7--0 with a 1.26 ERA. In four of those eight outings Lee has struck out at least 10 batters without a walk. No one else has done that in the postseason twice. In fact, those four dominant performances represent a threshold attained only four times in the other 2,568 postseason games ever played.

At 32, and just weeks away from dominating the free-agent market in the same way he has the postseason, Lee only now is passing through his prime. But already he's deserving of a place on baseball's Mount Rushmore of postseason pitchers, where Gibson, Koufax and Mathewson have left room for a fourth. Actually, Lee's postseason line of batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage against (.173/.197/.229) is better across the board than those of all three October masters.

"We've got our work cut out for us, we know that," said San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean after the Giants hung three NLCS losses on Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the trio of Philadelphia aces who had been 20--4 since Aug. 14. "We've stared down great pitching in this [NLCS]. The tenacity of our guys is something else. We'll compete with anyone. Somehow our offense finds a way to get our pitchers three or four runs to win."

Said Moyer about Lee, "If you don't enjoy watching what he's doing right now, you'll never enjoy pitching."

This is a World Series for aficionados, the first one in eight years without big-box franchises out of the Atlantic corridor or big Midwestern cities. It will not rank among the four most-watched Fall Classics since baseball's contract with Fox began in 2000; those all involved the Yankees or the Red Sox. This one is for people who favor independent films with well-written narratives over mass-market major-studio productions. The Giants and the Rangers, as if sharing scriptwriters, even clinched their Series spots in precisely the same way: by knocking off the defending league champion (Phillies and Yankees) in six games, with the final out coming on a called third strike against the opponent's cleanup hitter and highest-paid player (Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez).

With those strikeouts, the meme of parity in baseball spread further. Half the 30 franchises in baseball now have played in the past 10 World Series. Either Texas (49 years) or San Francisco (56 years) will end one of the two longest world championship droughts this side of the famously dry Cubs and Indians.

A championship has been a long time coming for both franchises, but San Francisco and Texas are also alike in that they built World Series teams not so much in the winter but on the fly during the season. The Giants, cobbling pieces together like an Erector set, assembled random veteran parts around a core of four factory-ordered, homegrown starting pitchers (righthanders Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and lefthanders Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner). Of the other 19 players they used in the NLCS, nine weren't even in the organization on the first of the year, including outfielder Cody Ross, who was cut by the Marlins in August and went on to become the NLCS MVP. The Giants also added catcher Buster Posey, who was called up from the minors in May and became a Rookie of the Year candidate.

Likewise, after Opening Day, Texas added veterans such as catcher Bengie Molina (from the Giants), outfielder Jeff Francoeur—and, most of all, that October talisman, Lee. Like a genie in a bottle, Lee seems to have transformative powers for those who hold him. The Phillies traded for him from Cleveland in July 2009 and went to the World Series; they couldn't get back after dealing him to Seattle last winter rather than teaming him in the rotation with Halladay. This year the Rangers got Lee from Seattle on July 9, effectively dooming the Yankees, who lost out on the bidding, and essentially landing Texas its first World Series. There are now only two franchises that have never been there: Seattle and Washington (née Montreal), two franchises that have traded Lee away.

When Lee made his first start for Texas, it meant he had pitched for four franchises in a span of 27 outings. This off-season could bring more change for him, with a free-agent auction for the genie in a bottle. And what could such a charm be worth? "Go next door and ask them," said Texas president Nolan Ryan, gesturing toward the Yankees' clubhouse after Lee beat New York 8--0 in ALCS Game 3. "I think he's got their attention."

Lee and his wife, Kristen, grew up and still live in Benton, Ark., with their son, Jaxon, 9; and daughter, Maci, 7. Arlington, Texas, is the closest major league city to Benton, a convenience that allowed Lee, for the first time as a big leaguer, to fly home on off days. "This is great for my family, to be this close to home," Lee said after the Rangers eliminated the Yankees with a 6--1 win in Game 6 of the ALCS. "I love this situation I'm in. I love this team. I love my teammates. It's been a fun ride. It's been an unbelievable experience."

Just three years ago, when he was 29 and with Cleveland, Lee was demoted to the minors with a 6.38 ERA and couldn't even make the Indians' postseason roster. He had been a quality major league pitcher before that unseemly season, putting up a 46--24 record in his first three full years largely on the skill of pounding fastballs and cutters on the hands of righthanded hitters. But an abdominal pull knocked him out of spring training in '07, and, kept from his routines and repetitions, Lee never locked down the mechanics that allow him to control his fastball.

Given a healthy start to 2008 and on a mission to command both sides of the plate, a new version of Lee—mechanically precise, with the ability to spot fastballs, cutters, a spike curve and changeup—immediately emerged. He went 22--3 with an AL-best 2.54 ERA that year and won the Cy Young Award. Since the start of '08 Lee ranks sixth in the majors in wins (48) and eighth in ERA (2.98). During that span only Halladay has been better at limiting runners (Lee has a .283 OBP against) or has a better strikeout-to-walk rate (5.64).

Lee's delivery, or at least the athleticism that allows him to repeat it pitch after pitch, has become the envy of the industry. He begins on the far right side of the rubber in the contrapposto of Michelangelo's David, an athletic body at rest but poised for action. He then takes a bit of a dance step, inching toward third base with his right foot before lifting it. Lee rotates his front hip and shoulder far enough for the hitter to see the 33 on his back, and as the ball comes out of his glove in his left hand, the hitter cannot see it; in fact, the ball stays hidden behind his body and then his head before suddenly appearing out of an unusually high release point. Keeping his front side on the target for as long as possible and keeping his head uncannily still are key parts of his delivery. They allow Lee to create deception with consistent body control, which typically would be competing elements. "There's something about the way the ball seems to come out at the last minute," Moyer says, "that causes hitters to pick it up late. It's amazing how his fastball gets on top of hitters."

Lee doesn't throw especially hard (he might top out at 94 mph), nor is he especially large (6'3", 190 pounds). But he does have what Moyer calls the advantage of being "country strong," especially across his upper back.

"Cliff told me that as a kid he would dig fence posts," Moyer says. "Have you ever dug a fence post with one of those tools? It's hard work. Now think about digging 50, 60 holes a day every day. Cliff may not look like it, but he's incredibly strong."

The preferred cruising speed for Lee is a tick below 90 mph, which is how hard he throws his signature pitch, the cutter. Lee, a fourth-round draft pick of the Expos in 2000, learned the pitch from Montreal instructor Ace Adams in '01 when he was at Class A Jupiter, and he has refined it over years of repetition. When he beat the Yankees in the ALCS, Lee threw 40 cutters among his 122 pitches, getting 10 outs with the pitch, and became only the third pitcher (after Koufax and Gibson) to have 13 or more strikeouts against the Yankees in a postseason game at Yankee Stadium.

"I think what is separating him from any other pitcher right now is really his cutter, how late it is," says Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte. "You hear people [say that] he doesn't have dominating stuff, [but] that cutter has to be pretty dominating. It has to be moving extremely well for guys to have such a hard time handling it."

On the last day of the 2001 season with Jupiter, Lee and his wife and son were in Daytona Beach. Jaxon Lee developed a fever and was vomiting. Kristen took him to an emergency room. Doctors first thought it was a urinary-tract infection. But after more tests Kristen called Cliff at the ballpark with terrible news: It was probably leukemia. Another round of tests at a hospital in Orlando confirmed that Jaxon had myelogenous leukemia. He was given a 30% chance of surviving. Jaxon was four months old.

Cliff and Kristen took Jaxon home to Arkansas for chemotherapy. Lee would fill the anxious time during Jaxon's treatments chopping firewood. Then Jaxon needed radiation treatments. And then he underwent a stem-cell blood transplant in San Antonio.

In 2002, as Jaxon was recovering, Kristen noticed a change in Lee, who as a top high school prospect was considered by some to be immature. "I don't like that crazy stuff, and that's how you would kind of explain him in high school," she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette then. "He's matured a whole lot."

Eight years and four trades later, Lee is the epitome of pitching sovereignty. He has found a groove in his career and his life, and his ability to stay in that groove is what makes him unique. "I know what works for me," he says. "I don't know how other guys look at it and what they do. I keep things simple. It's black and white. It's not really a mystery or a big secret. I don't really dig too deep into why I think this or why I think that."

After Game 3 of the ALCS, Ryan noted Lee's brilliance by saying, "You hate to say that's what your expectation is of him, but that's what it is, because he's been so consistent. He's the most consistent pitcher I've ever seen."

As Lee showered after his Yankee Stadium masterpiece, a small boy waited at his locker. Jaxon Lee is a healthy, active nine-year-old now. A clubhouse attendant asked Jaxon if he was in the clubhouse last October, after Lee beat the Yankees 6--1 in Game 1 of the World Series. Jaxon nodded yes, he was.

A bit later, alone, Jaxon reached for his father's game hat. The back and the brim of the hat were still marked with smudges of white rosin, residue from Cliff's routine of touching the rosin bag and his cap to gain just the right tackiness on his fingers. The boy picked up the hat, held it to his face and, deeply, breathed in.

Now on SI.com

Tom Verducci, Jon Heyman and Joe Posnanski cover the World Series at SI.com/mlb

SAYS MOYER ABOUT THE RANGERS' ACE, "IF YOU DON'T ENJOY WATCHING WHAT HE'S DOING RIGHT NOW, YOU'LL NEVER ENJOY PITCHING."
PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (GIANTS)GLEE CLUBS With 56- and 49-year Series droughts dogging them, the Giants and the Rangers had reason to go crazy.PHOTOROBERT BECK (RANGERS)[See caption above]PHOTODARREN CARROLLTOTAL CONTROL Lee has been nearly perfect in October: In eight postseason starts he is 7--0 with a 1.26 ERA, 67 K's and just seven walks.PHOTOFORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/MCT/LANDOV[See caption above]