And yet ... how can anyone doubt Cliff Lee? Did you see him out there Wednesday night, pitching Philadelphia to a 6-1 victory over the Yankees in Game 1 of the World Series? There isn't even a word for how he looked. It's like the opposite of nervous only bigger. Relaxed? Not a big enough word. Confident? Not big enough. Arrogant? Closer, but we're still not there. We need a new word: Retrocalm, maybe. Cliff Lee pitched Wednesday like he had already seen the game and knew how it turned out. He pitched like he was on Tivo.
"Not nervous at all," Lee insisted when asked if he was just joking around about not being nervous. "It's been a long time since I've been nervous playing this game. It's what I've been doing my whole life."
Yes, well, major leaguers, they have ALL been doing this their whole lives. But they get nervous. They have trouble sleeping the night before. They throw up before games. They pace the clubhouse. They endure the butterflies that flap around in their bellies because ... well because that's what it is like to be alive.
And yet ... did you see him out there? Step right up ladies and gentlemen and take a look at the world's coolest pitcher! Here he is making a basket catch on a fly ball. There he is snagging a bouncing ball behind his back. He isn't just beating the Yankees, he's humiliating them! He's undressing them! Here he is tagging out Jorge Posada but more, tagging him out on the butt, recording the first "Better luck next time big guy," putout in World Series history. There he is striking out the hottest hitter on planet earth, Alex Rodriguez three times. You haven't seen anything quite like the magic of Cliff Lee!
The numbers are staggering enough. Lee threw a complete game -- something no pitcher has done in Game 1 of the World Series since Greg Maddux back in 1995. He struck out 10 Yankees and walked none. No winning pitcher has done that in the World Series since Deacon Phillippe 1903 -- the first World Series. He did not allow an earned run against a Yankees team that has averaged almost six runs a game. He did not allow a runner to reach third base until the ninth inning, when he had a 6-0 lead.
But the numbers don't give us quite enough. They don't capture the story of a pitcher who grew up in Arkansas dreaming (like many kids dream) of pitching in the World Series. Two years ago, Lee was struggling so much that the Cleveland Indians sent him back to the minor leagues. He worked his way back, won the Cy Young award in 2008, got traded to Philadelphia the very next year, and suddenly he was pitching in Yankee Stadium, in hungry New York, against one of the great lineups in baseball history. Suddenly, he was surrounded by the New York rage and the ghosts and -- hey, there's Yogi Berra! -- and this was it, the surreal moment, the dream come to life and ...
"There's no sense in getting nervous and worried," Lee would say.
Right. No sense in getting nervous. There's also no sense in slipping on ice, hitting your head when getting something from under a table or choking momentarily on a piece of steak, but people do these things anyway. Not nervous? Impossible. And yet these weren't just words. He pitched like he wasn't nervous. He acted like he wasn't nervous.
Maybe the only person who can explain is Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, with his West Virginia accent and his homespun philosophy and his almost zen-like sense for baseball:
"Most of the time when he starts a game, and he's in control of the game, and everything around it he's controlling -- he's throwing strikes and he's getting the ball, what I call he handles the flow of the game, if you know what I mean. Everybody about it. The flow of the game, the way the game goes.
"Not only does he have command of the game, but he has the flow of the game. To me he sets the tone by his rhythm, getting the ball back, and he knows what he's going to throw. I like the way he pitches. I like everything about how he goes about it. But that's part of his success, too, is the fact that's how he handles the game."
OK, I have absolutely no idea what Charlie's talking about. But I've got to believe the secret to the success of Cliff Lee is in there somewhere.
Whatever Lee's secret, the Series certainly has become very interesting. The Yankees didn't just lose Game 1. They lost at home. They lost with their ace on the mound. They lost in a way that showed they are anything but invincible. They lost and are now counting on the utterly unpredictable A.J. Burnett in Game 2. Yes, it's just one game. And yes, the Yankees said that again and again. Just one game. But Lee's dominating performance at Yankee Stadium was just one game in the way that a good punch to the jaw is just one punch. The Yankees are woozy.
And perhaps the most telling statement after Wednesday's game was when Yankees manager Joe Girardi, in an effort to downplay the loss, said this about Lee: "One thing we know: He can't pitch every game." It's so strange. Cliff Lee pitched his first World Series game on Wednesday. And it was the manager of the New York Yankees who was nervous.