When the Cliff Lee trade was miraculously consummated some three-odd months ago, a trade that only coalesced after the Rangers seized upon the final chance gifted to them by Mariners general manager Jack Zdurienick to best the Yankees' offer (according to this version of the narrative, at least), the initial joyous reaction of many was to talk about the great things that this trade would do for the Rangers' chances of advancing deep into the post-season. And yet no matter how much we talked about it and even attempted to imagine what it might be like, this has surpassed all conceivable expectations. This is a modern-day baseball fairytale come to life.
There is not much more original that can be said about Cliff Lee at this point -- the man is an absolute pitching freak in the best possible of ways, having infiltrated Yankee Stadium and posted eight scoreless frames of two-hit, one-walk, 13-strikeout baseball. Of the 2,515 post-season starts in baseball history comprising nine or fewer innings, Lee's Game Score (90) from last night is tied for the 11th-highest all time; his start also goes down as the second-best ALCS start in baseball history, surpassed only by Roger Clemens' heroic 138-pitch Game 4 performance (9.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 15 K) against the Mariners in the 2000 ALCS. The Yankees knew exactly what was coming, yet were powerless to stop it.
New York players/coaches evidently attempted to talk themselves into believing that they could beat Lee on the basis of them having amassed eight hits -- and plated four runs -- against Lee on August 11th; the problem with such a comparison, of course, is that Lee was concealing a back injury at the time and incurring collateral damage from his compromised command. I believe it is now fair to say that the Yankees are baffled by -- if not downright terrified of -- Lee's methodical and relentless lineup-killing abilities, and now New York must find some way to beat both Tommy Hunter and C.J. Wilson in Yankee Stadium and Colby Lewis in Arlington in order to avert Lee's scheduled Game 7 start. That likely will not happen, and, at this point, you have to feel good about the Rangers' chances of securing their first-ever World Series berth.
The victory-securing ninth-inning outburst by the Rangers' offense offered two ancillary storylines, the first of which concerned Lee -- despite having thrown 122 pitches through eight innings and never having thrown more than 124 pitches in a major league start, manager Ron Washington (and almost certainly pitching coach Mike Maddux) were prepared to send him out against the top of the Yankees' order in the bottom of the ninth inning if the score had remained 2-0. Research indicates that hitters enjoy a progressively greater advantage against a given starting pitcher as the game unfolds (attributed to growing recognition/familiarity), such that the bullpen is often the better option the third/fourth times through the batting order -- and yet in spite of both this fact and the workload, Lee was so extraordinary that even I wanted to see him keep going. I won't be surprised if an identical leave-him-or-yank-him dilemma arises again this month.
And then there was Neftali Feliz, whose 20-pitch outing in an eight-run game was justified by Washington thusly: "We figured that every time we get an opportunity to get him out there, it would benefit us because he's a young kid. He's saved a lot of games for us, and he did a great job of doing that. But in the playoffs, it's a different atmosphere." I suppose what you have to ask yourself, and what the Rangers had to ask themselves, is whether the potential confidence boost justified the potential trade-off in effectiveness; I'm not so sure that it did, but I think back to something I wrote two weeks ago concerning how the perfect in-game manager doesn't really exist, and how I think you can overlook some minor tactical transgressions when you have a manager who is perpetually lauded by his players for setting the right tone in the clubhouse.
Actually, the more unsettling error in that ninth inning was highlighted by radio play-by-play voice Eric Nadel, who openly expressed surprise/disdain over the air upon realizing that Washington/Maddux did not have anyone warming up behind Feliz; had he yielded a hit/walk or two, he could have easily run his pitch count beyond the 30-pitch mark and effectively knocked himself out of commission for Tuesday night's rematch. No potential confidence boost could have compensated for the unavailability of the Rangers' best reliever in a game where the bullpen is virtually certain to get involved, and I'm just thankful that no such shadow was cast on such an unforgettably momentous game in Rangers history.