Lee's Game 1 dominance casts a pall over Yankees' Series chances

Publish date:

NEW YORK -- With Derek Jeter leading off in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, Fox broadcaster Joe Buck told viewers that of all those who had been impressed and mesmerized by the performance of the Phillies' Cliff Lee -- and that should have included all 50,207 fans in attendance and the Yankees themselves -- surely no one was watching more closely than Lee's 8-year-old son, Jaxon. "You can bet Jaxon is at home in Benton, Ark., watching this game," Buck said.

It was a nice sentiment but an inaccurate one. When Lee left his team's midtown hotel on Wednesday afternoon, Jaxon was there to bid him farewell in his replica Phillies jersey with his dad's name on it. Jaxon may have also been a key to his father's calm persona as game time approached, which involved little more than hanging out in his hotel room and playing video games. Jaxon survived leukemia as an infant, and his struggle helped his father realize that nothing he'd ever face would ever be that tough again, not even the Yankees and not even the World Series. Jaxon certainly didn't seem nervous, either. When he was asked if he was looking forward to going to the game, he shook his head no.

The Yankees must be equally unenthusiastic about having to watch Lee again after he overwhelmed them in a series-changing Game 1. The Yankees didn't put more than one runner on base in any inning until the ninth, scored only one unearned run and struck out 10 times against Lee. Afterward, there was only one word to describe Lee's gem.

"That was a dominant pitcher on the mound who dominated our lineup and probably would have dominated any lineup," said Alex Rodriguez, who added, "I don't think you have to over think tonight."

Rodriguez is right, of course, and he and his teammates are entitled to their confidence born from having led the major leagues in runs scored and victories this season but it's clear that this Series looks very different after Game 1 than it did beforehand. The Yankees had home-field advantage, and it is gone. They had a Cy Young-winning ace to lean on to get them off to an early Series lead, and now that is gone. And they had an offense prolific enough to keep them in games all year long, but for one day at least, that was gone as well. And now so too is much of the aura that the Yankees brought into the Series as decided favorites.

Of course, in the World Series, the Yankees are all about aura, but it is telling that on this night the only connection to Babe Ruth came when the Phillies' Chase Utley became the first left-handed hitter since Ruth to hit two home runs off a lefty pitcher in the World Series.

Losing their historical mojo wasn't the Yankees' only problem on this night. Much like Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, who were supposed to perform before the game, the Yankees' star-studded offense never showed up. For only the second time all season at Yankee Stadium, they failed to record at least one extra-base hit. It was only the 11th time this season they had not hit a home run in their own ballpark, and Lee was the second pitcher all year to strike them out as many as 10 times.

Those numbers are indicative of a Yankees offense that has rarely, if ever, looked so flustered as it did on this blustery Bronx night. "I tried to do my best to square the ball up but it was moving all over the place," said Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, who finished 1-for-4. "He can cut the ball, he sinks the ball. We weren't sure how hard he was throwing because the scoreboard said 91, 92 but the TV had it 94, 95."

While Lee cruised, his friend and former teammate CC Sabathia labored through seven innings for the Yankees. His final line -- seven innings, four hits, two runs, six strikeouts -- looked quality, but Sabathia knew otherwise. "Three walks," he said, shaking his head. "I was behind pretty much the whole game. This isn't how I've pitched in postseason."

Despite his shaky command, it wasn't the walks but a pair of wayward fastballs that were his true undoing, both of which were turned into solo home runs by Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. The first came in the third inning when Utley yanked a fastball into the short porch in right field. The second homer came in the sixth, when Utley clobbered a fastball that was supposed to go up and in but instead missed low and over the plate. Sabathia had shaken off catcher JorgePosada's request for a breaking ball before leaving a fastball out over the plate.

The day before the Series started, Sabathia talked at length about his friendship with Lee, and recounted how the two had had dinner at Sabathia's house back in April after the first game at Yankee Stadium, when Lee shut down the Yankees and beat Sabathia much the same way as he did on this night. Those two performances are enough to give the Phillies a decided edge in any remaining Lee vs. Sabathia matchups. Indeed, the Yankees had great comfort in the knowledge that they could pitch Sabathia three times in this series, but now it is the slender Lee who is the Yankees' biggest roadblock to a title.

At least Sabathia kept the Yankees in the game, which is more than could be said of the bullpen. Once considered a Yankees strength, their relief corps continued its curious demise in Game 1, with five relievers combining to allow five hits, three walks and four runs. Most troubling of all for the Yankees was the non-relief offered by Phil Hughes, who walked both batters he faced to lead off the eighth inning, both of whom came around to score. Hughes now has a 9.64 ERA in the postseason, and has allowed opponents to hit .391 against him. It's telling perhaps, that while he was the Yankees' eighth-inning pitcher for much of the season regardless of whom he was facing, he was likely only going to pitch to two batters no matter what happened in Game 1. Damaso Marte was warming to face lefties Utley and Ryan Howard, against whom he improved to 0-for-8 with six strikeouts after relieving Hughes.

Getting Hughes, the rest of the bullpen and their offense straightened out now becomes top priority for the Yankees as they head into Game 2. After the game, Jeter was asked if there would be more importance on winning Thursday. Before the question could even be finished, Jeter interrupted with his most confident and insistent remark of the night. "Nope, he said, "You handle every game the same."

Jeter's confidence is admirable, and a large part of why he is so lionized both inside and outside of the Yankees clubhouse. It also is somewhat misleading. No, the Yankees do not need to panic. But neither should they feel as comfortable as they did when the Series began. Their ace has been beaten. Their Game 2 starter, A.J. Burnett, has been the most inconsistent starter among their three playoff pitchers. And they must deal with the constant specter of Lee hanging over the rest of the series, a looming presence that now fulfills the role of overpowering intimidator that Sabathia was supposed to perform in this Series.

"One thing we know," said Girardi, looking for the silver lining in a dreary, rain-soaked evening, "[Lee] can't pitch every game."

For the Yankees, that's the only good news they got all night.