Lee's the star of this Texas rodeo

Cliff Lee is worth everything the Texas Rangers could ever give him

The moment will arrive when one signature on a sheet of paper reveals the value of Cliff Lee's left arm. In years. In dollars. In the business sense.

A sudsy Tuesday — when Nolan Ryan sipped champagne from a Styrofoam cup and once-troubled slugger Josh Hamilton was doused with Canada Dry — was not that time. The Texas Rangers looked like a carefree college team. No one was worried about who was on scholarship.

At this stage of the playoffs, Major League Baseball doesn't even hand out a most valuable player award. But no one who witnessed this seesaw American League Division Series — won by the Rangers over the Tampa Bay Rays, three games to two — would have hesitated before filling out the ballot.

The Rangers won a playoff series for the first time in their 39-year history, and they won because they have Cliff Lee.

So, you ask, how much is the man worth?

“Cliff Lee,” answered Rangers managing partner Chuck Greenberg, down the hallway from a raging clubhouse celebration, “is worth everything that he’s going to get.”

And at the moment, Lee's worth everything to the Rangers.

Lee, 32, will be the free agent of the upcoming offseason. His once-in-a-lifetime cash grab awaits. But if you thought that would distract him this October, that no man could be this calm with that much at stake, then I invite you to consider the following numbers:

Two starts. Two wins. Two earned runs in 16 innings. Twenty-one strikeouts, an ALDS record.

One rebar-nerved complete game in Tuesday's clinching 5-1 win.

Hamilton was asked what he saw from centerfield. “Gol-ly,” he replied, in his North Carolina draw.

Make that “Gol-Lee.”

It's easy to forget that Lee's a relative newcomer to the October stage. He didn't debut in the postseason until starting for Philadelphia against Colorado on Oct. 7, 2009 — one year and one week ago. But in that brief interval, he's established himself as one of the greatest big-game pitchers of this era of any other.

In seven postseason starts, Lee's 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA. As for the no-decision? The Phillies won that game, too.

To find a pitcher whose ERA was better over at least five postseason starts, one must go back more than 40 years and arrive at a left-hander of great renown.

Sandy Koufax.

“Beyond words,” Greenberg said of Lee’s Game 5 performance. “It's like watching an artist at work. He's a remarkable guy, a remarkable pitcher. That's why we were all so confident going into today. You're handing the ball to Cliff Lee. How can you be nervous?”

Well, actually, it's not that hard. I would wager that many Rangers fans ordered a side of Tums with dinner on Tuesday night. Twice, they packed Rangers Ballpark with the intent to celebrate a clincher. Twice, they went home muttering.

Game 5 is Game 5. An oddball play, an off night, and the season's over. Lee had been so good, so many times, that you wondered if maybe, possibly, the guy was due for a clunker.

The mound could be bad. The strike zone could be unfavorable. Sean Rodriguez could hit three home runs. Something. Anything.

There's one problem with that theory, though. Lee doesn't think like that.

When asked about his performance, Lee didn't reveal what it felt like to bear the weight of a long-woeful franchise. He didn't indulge in a discussion of his postseason excellence. Instead, he said this: “I didn't walk anybody.”

And he was right. He faced 60 batters in this series. Not one free pass.

“He's got a personality that allows him to repel any sort of circumstance,” said fellow left-hander C.J. Wilson, who'll start against the Yankees in Game 1 on Friday. “He's himself, regardless of the situation. He's got his own little bubble around him. He was in his bubble tonight — throwing cutters, throwing fastballs, getting ahead, not walking anybody.”

That's one way to describe what Lee did. Another is this: He toyed with the Rays, who finished with the most wins in the league this year. Lee introduced his knee-wobbling curveball in the middle of the game. He casually dropped it into the middle of counts.

Looking fastball? Snap.

Lee gave up one run in the third. He was so flustered that he struck out the side in the fourth.

“Sometimes, I'll guess what pitches he’s going to throw,” Hamilton said. “A lot of times, I'm wrong. So I can imagine what the batters are going through.”

“Cut it, sink it, change speeds,” said Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach, who played with Lee in Cleveland. “Shoot, he got us.”

The Yankees are next.

Yes, they're the defending world champions, but they couldn't beat Lee in two tries last October. They tried to trade for him in July. They almost did. But the Rangers, under thoughtful-yet-aggressive general manager Jon Daniels, struck the deal.

It was part of a midseason rebuild, completed despite the restrictions of the club's sale out of bankruptcy court. Piece by piece, Daniels built a division champion. But he didn't have a team capable of toppling the Rays — or the Yankees — until he landed Lee.

“The biggest acquisition was Cliff,” said Ryan, the last great Texas pitcher and now part of the ownership group. “It gave us that lead horse in the pitching staff.”

Lee looked, acted and pitched the part on Tuesday. As the on-field celebration dispersed, he walked up a stairway to the clubhouse. Halfway, he paused to hand the game ball to a team official.

For the authenticator, Lee said.

Yeah, he's been here before.

Yankee Stadium? October? He's been there, too.

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