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Lee, Phillies appear to be in top form
It was almost midnight in Texas when Cody Ross, last year’s postseason revelation, went down on strikes for the fourth and final time. Cliff Lee had shut out the San Francisco Giants, 3-0, which must have elicited a chorus of weary murmurs from Rangers fans in Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth: Where was that when we needed it?
Lee was back at AT&T Park on Thursday, revisiting the mound where the 2010 postseason spun off its axis. He hadn’t pitched in San Francisco since Game 1 of last year’s World Series, when the then-Texas lefty seemed destined to further his October legend. Entering that night, his teams were 8-0 when he pitched in the postseason. He looked unbeatable. He wasn’t.
Lee didn’t last five innings in that World Series opener. He lost. He lost Game 5, too. Now the Giants are world champions, Lee is a Phillie, and we’re wondering if they’re two months from renewing acquaintances in the National League Championship Series.
Lee seized upon Thursday’s autumnal atmosphere — a foggy 59 degrees at game time — to issue a polite reminder about his big-game credentials. He allowed one extra-base hit. He didn’t permit a runner past second base. As Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel observed, “Cliff Lee sent a message that he can still pitch good.”
Apparently so. Eight strikeouts? No walks? Lee acknowledged that he commanded his pitches better on Thursday than in any other game this season.
The result was a three-run blowout.
“With his tempo and rhythm, he controls the game,” Manuel said. “He takes the game where he wants it to go. He slows it up. He speeds it up. That’s what makes him unique. When he’s real good, that’s what he does: He has control of the game.”
Was this a statement game in the truest sense? Well, not really. That would imply there is something in doubt about the relative strengths of the 2011 Phillies and 2011 Giants, when in fact there is not. The Giants have the rings, but the Phillies have the better roster, and the margin is widening by the week.
Let’s put it this way: The Phillies have more wins (72, the most in baseball) than the Giants have home runs (70, third fewest in the NL).
One irony is that the Giants can claim partial responsibility for Lee wearing the Philadelphia uniform this year. Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies’ aggressive general manager, wanted to counterpunch after his hitters were humbled by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain & Co. in last year’s NLCS. So he shelled out $120 million to sign Lee.
Thus far, Amaro’s plan has played out to perfection. The Phillies have the best rotation ERA in the National League, thanks to Lee’s arrival, Cole Hamels’ improvement and Vance Worley’s emergence. The Giants, of course, rank second.
San Francisco indeed has the better bullpen. But the Phillies’ lineup is far superior. Bruce Bochy’s batting order for Thursday’s game included just two hitters who started against Lee in Game 1 last year — Ross (0-for-4) and Aubrey Huff (1-for-3). Despite several deadline upgrades — including Carlos Beltran — it appears that the Giants’ offensive magic went away when Buster Posey’s ankle was torn apart. Lee observed that Posey’s absence is a “huge blow” to the Giants, adding, “I think their offense is missing him.”
If these teams were to begin a seven-game series this weekend, Philadelphia would win.
“It’s August,” Philly star Ryan Howard cautioned. “Everybody kind of views this as a potential future matchup. That’s great and everything. But I think the mindset between both teams is that it’s August right now. We’re still jockeying for position to make it to October.”
Lee wasn’t in the mood to discuss October in the past or future tense. Asked whether he reflected back to the World Series as he walked into the ballpark, he replied, “No. That’s in the past. I’m thinking about today — their lineup, their hitters, what I need to do. That’s all I was thinking about.”
Lee went on to say that last year “doesn’t matter.” Well, that’s not entirely true. Last year, the Giants beat the Phillies in the NLCS and the Rangers in the World Series. Those events brought Lee back to AT&T Park on Thursday night. Whether he returns this October is anyone’s guess. But I’d say we have a pretty good idea of what will happen if he does.
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