PHILADELPHIA -- It was surely past his bedtime, but as midnight approached on Sunday night in Citizen's Bank Park, there was a little boy in a Cliff Lee jersey hanging with the man himself, and a few of his Phillies friends, just outside the home team clubhouse. The grown ups were talking and joking with their pint-sized pal and only minutes before, Lee had finished off a dazzling performance that gave the Phillies a 2-1 lead in the National League Championship Series. The scene now was reminiscent of the schooling he had just given the Dodgers -- in both cases he looked like a man among boys. In the Phillies 11-0 blowout win in Game 3, Lee delivered as superb an outing as this postseason has witnessed to date, even if the line itself -- eight innings, no walks, 10 strikeouts, no runs and no chance allowed -- doesn't do justice to the level of brilliance he displayed on Sunday.
After the first two hitters of the game flied out, the Dodgers got only three more balls out of the infield against Lee. At no point did the Dodgers put more than one runner on base in any inning, and Lee pitched out of the stretch so infrequently (just eight times all game) that he wound up taking his warmup pitches from the stretch, just in case. Only one Dodger reached second base against Lee, and he promptly responded with perhaps his two best at-bats of the night. First, he struck out Manny Ramirez on a wicked changeup that disappeared at the last instant, then he fanned Matt Kemp on a fastball in the low-90s.
On the Phillies bench, his teammates watched in awe, when they weren't shaking their heads and smiling at Lee's latest gem. "He was impressive to watch," said Phillies lefty Cole Hamels afterward. "We just sit there and laugh because he makes hitters look ridiculous."
If anyone can relate to what Lee is doing this October, it's Hamels. Only a year ago, it was he who was the lefty ace, a shutdown presence with intimidating stuff who represented as close to a sure thing as baseball had seen in the postseason in some time. This year, that person is Lee. He was acquired from the Indians in late July to complement Hamels but he has wound up supplanting him as the team's go-to ace in this postseason. In three playoff starts, he has a 2-0 record and a 0.74 ERA in 24 1/3 innings pitched. He is holding opponents to a .165 average and has 20 strikeouts against just three walks.
When Dodgers manager Joe Torre was asked what he thought of Lee's performance, he said, "What do I always think of Cliff Lee? He's pretty damned special."
That he was, and he didn't take long to show it, either. He retired the side in order in the first inning, striking out a red-hot Andre Ethier on one of many filthy pitches. "When he takes the mound, you can see it in his presence," said Ryan Howard, who has been almost as unstoppable at the plate in this postseason as Lee has been on the mound.
If the Dodgers weren't beaten when Lee started the game, they were before he went back out for the top of the second. Four of the first five Phillies scored, two on a triple into the right field corner by Howard, who said he had "full-out panic" as he made the turn for third and a rare three-bagger, and two more on a Jayson Werth home run. By the time it was over, it was the largest margin of victory in Phillies postseason history and equaled the biggest defeat in Dodgers' history.
Hiroki Kuroda gave the Dodgers no chance at victory, and didn't make it out of the second inning. According to Stats Inc., Kuroda became the first starter in postseason history to allow six earned runs in fewer than two innings of work. Torre said Kuroda, who hadn't pitched in a game since September 28 because of a sore neck, had a fine bullpen session before the game, on the heels of a quality simulated game last Tuesday in Arizona with Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt in attendance. But Torre was at a loss for why exactly Kuroda was hit so hard, saying only, "The ball didn't behave."
It did for the Phillies, who had hit for the cycle before Lee came to the plate for his first at-bat of the game. By the time he returned to the plate for his last at-bat, it seemed certain he would be allowed to finish the game, having thrown only 114 pitches. Lee singled to center, and after Shane Victorino drove him in with a three-run home run that swelled the lead to 11-0, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel decided to pull his from the game. Lee admitted he wanted to go back out, even joking that if he had known more runs might have caused him to come out, "I would have tried to hit into a double play."
No chance of that. Like a giant investment bank, Lee was simply too big to fail on this night. For the fans who rocked Citizen's Bank and showed off the predictable puns on placards throughout the stands -- LeePeat, We Be-Lee-ve, and at least two that read City of Brother-Lee Love -- they must hope it's always Sunday in Philadelphia. Lee has made three postseason starts, and he has been brilliant in each of them.
It may be extremely premature to speculate about a Yankees-Phillies World Series (though that didn't stop one reporter from asking Ryan Howard about facing Sabathia after Game 3), but it's clear that Lee has given the Phillies what Sabathia has given the Yankees, and what both the Angels and the Dodgers are desperately seeking right now: an ace capable of dominating a lineup and all but assuring a victory. Although the Yankees have a more sizable advantage than does Philadelphia, this series has looked even more one-sided than the ALCS. The Phillies have outplayed the Dodgers so badly that they are only one bad half-inning away from being on the verge of a sweep, and still have two more games in their own ballpark with which to wrap it up.
Still, the Dodgers aren't quite as dead as they looked on Sunday. They need only win one game to send the series back to Los Angeles, and with Randy Wolf, their Game 1 starter in the Division Series, and Clayton Kershaw, their best pitcher in the regular season, they are more than capable of winning one if not both. But even the warmth of Southern California will be no comfort with the cold reality that even if they do get back there, waiting for them will be a more-than-rested pair of Pedro Martinez and Lee, who have combined to allow L.A. just five hits in 15 innings of work over the past two games. They will also need to slow down a Phillies offense that got at least one hit or walk and at least one run scored from every member of their lineup on Sunday, has outscored them 20-8 and has more than twice as many extra base-hits (9 to 4).
In other words, it has looked like child's play.