Everything you need to know about Cliff Lee - not Cliff Lee in general, but Cliff Lee the pitcher, as he is right now - you could've picked up from the way people were talking about Game 3 of the ALCS leading up to the first pitch.
Game 3, of course, was to feature the, and it was to take place in New York. Yankee Stadium. Home of the ghosts, and home of the most successful franchise in baseball history. They say if you want to win the World Series, you have to go through the Yankees. That's just who they are. They don't exist as a regular season baseball team. They exist as a boss from a video game. Sure, you might see them a few times early, in May or July. You might even get in a few solid hits. But you know you can't kill them there. You know they're going to get away, and you know that, if you do well enough, you'll have to face them later.
You'll have to face them in their lair. October - that's where the Yankees live. The Yankees are always there, and the Yankees are always formidable. And the Yankees are always the favorites. At least in their minds, and in those of their fans and the media. If you talk about the Yankees in the playoffs, you damn sure better talk about the Yankees winning in the playoffs. Otherwise you'll have some serious explaining to do.
Come October, the Yankees are always the team that's supposed to win. Whether for legitimate reasons or nebulous ones, treating the Yankees as favorites is what drives the dialogue.
Only tonight was different. The Yankees weren't the favorites tonight. Not against Cliff Lee. Not even with Andy Pettitte taking the ball on their behalf. People have been talking about Lee's presence in this series for a week. People have been talking about how much he means to Texas, and how much he could mean against New York. And coming into Game 3, that Yankee overconfidence - it was nowhere to be found. There was hope. But there were no declarations.
There was fear. Real fear. If not on the part of the players, then certainly on the part of the fans and the writers. The fans knew better than to expect anything against a guy like Cliff Lee. That much became clearly evident in the fourth inning, when the stadium erupted in applauding an 11-pitch at bat by Nick Swisher, and then gave Mark Teixeira a standing ovation for drawing a two-out walk. Yankees fans are pretty much always into the game, and they generally know what's good for their team, but that was above and beyond. They weren't cheering because their guys worked two long at bats. They were cheering because they just wanted to see a sign - any sign - that Cliff Lee is human.
Cliff Lee is on such a level right now that he turned the Yankees into playoff underdogs. Not just statistical underdogs. Popular underdogs. Consensus underdogs. Cliff Lee did what nobody's done. Cliff Lee did what Pedro Martinez could never do. Cliff Lee humbled New York in advance.
That's Cliff Lee. That's the guy thehave got.
You'll recall that this was a 2-0 game going into the ninth, and Lee had thrown a season-high 122 pitches. Still, according to Ron Washington, Lee was originally going to go back out there to try and finish the game had the top of the ninth not lasted so long.
That decision would've had people up in arms. Especially from the statistical sector, who have spilled millions of virtual words on the subject of how pitchers deteriorate at higher pitch counts and in their fourth turn through the lineup. Statistically, your best bet when your starter has 122 pitches is to go to the bullpen. It doesn't matter how shaky those guys have looked. The numbers say that Lee should be done.
That's a reasonable argument. It's an argument based entirely on fact and historical player performance. At the same time, Lee closed out the eighth having retired nine batters in a row - four by strikeout - needing just 41 pitches. Lee was looking very, very good. And the only indication that he'd gotten as deep as he had was his actual pitch count. There was nothing performance-related suggesting he was losing it.
Statistically, it's the wrong move to send Lee back out for the ninth. Yet, had the game remained close, I would've understood. Those numbers are averages. They don't say much when it comes to one particular game. And in this particular game, Lee looked as strong as ever. He was the guy, and he probably deserved it.