Lee humble after masterful performance

The clock said it was past midnight, and nearly all the witnesses were gone.

Cliff Lee sat at his locker in the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse, with son Jaxon at his side. The lefty stood up and tossed a towel into the laundry bin, as if this had been any old night, in any old stadium, in any old baseball season.

It was not. Not even close.

Lee made history, and he did it against the New York Yankees on a chilly October night.

There is a special place in baseball folklore for performances like this. Eight innings. Two hits. No runs. The Rangers won, 8-0. They lead this American League Championship Series, two games to one.

And Lee, 32, became the first man to strike out 10-plus hitters in three straight starts during the same postseason.

The feat is nothing short of extraordinary. Hall of Famer Bob Gibson strung together three postseason starts of double-digit strikeouts, but he did that over two World Series, in 1967 and 1968. No one else has been this overwhelming, this many games in a row, at this rarefied time of year.

As Lee started toward the clubhouse door, I asked if he was aware of the new standard he had set.

His answer? A shrug.

Lee added a moment later that yes, he had been told of the achievement. But nothing about his demeanor suggested that he is taking the time to savor every pitch of his unimpeded journey to immortality. He prefers to pitch and leave the bookkeeping to others.

In time, Lee will appreciate this. Jaxon will grow up and learn what his father did. And the Texas players will tell their kids about October 2010.

But right now, everyone’s busy watching.

The Yankees included.

“Cliff was … Cliff was … great to say the least,” said New York starter Andy Pettitte, who, like those of us sitting at laptops, grasped for the right words. “Just outstanding.”

Correction: Pettitte was outstanding. He allowed a two-run home run to Josh Hamilton in the first inning and nothing thereafter. Pettitte pitched like a champion, even though he had a long layoff, even though he suffered a groin injury not long ago, even though the Rangers stacked their lineup with right-handed threats.

But Lee was something more, something transcendent, something that could transform a losing franchise into this year’s biggest winner. When he pitches, the Texas Rangers believe they cannot lose. And why would they think otherwise? In eight postseason starts, Lee is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA.

“They’re not getting pitches to hit — at all, to even hit singles,” said third baseman Michael Young, the Rangers’ team leader. “He’s that good.”

And to think: When the Seattle Mariners were shopping Lee in July, the Rangers were initially reluctant to part with a young first baseman named Justin Smoak. In the end, they did. The result is why Texas general manager Jon Daniels will be baseball’s executive of the year.

With six more wins, the Rangers also would have to feel good about their chances of keeping Lee, a prospective free agent. Thanks to a lucrative television rights contract, they should have the firepower to compete with New York in a bidding war.

Of course, on the morning of July 9, the Yankees believed they had a trade in place for Lee. But after a flip-flop in Seattle, Lee became a Ranger.

Monday was the day the Yankees had feared for more than three months.

Lee didn’t allow even a baserunner until the fourth inning. Mark Teixeira walked, the first and only base on balls issued by Lee in 24 innings this postseason. In an era of nibbling pitchers and over-thinking on the mound, Lee is the triumphant iconoclast. He throws the ball with conviction, because he knows where it’s going.

Witness the final called strike in a second-inning putaway of Alex Rodriguez:

A graphic on the TBS telecast indicated that his cutter captured precisely half of the outside corner. The strike zone split the baseball down the middle, like a kitchen knife through an apple. Lee could not have placed the ball in a better location if he had set it on a tee.

“Spot the fastball, spot cutters — it’s not easy at all, and he does it with his eyes closed,” said veteran backstop Bengie Molina, who couldn’t remember catching a better postseason performance. “That’s what makes him amazing.”

Lee’s only whiff of trouble came in the sixth inning, when Brett Gardner led off with a single and stole second base. Three hitters who have had success against Lee in the past — Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Teixeira — were to follow.

But Jeter’s postseason mettle didn’t matter. He struck out. Swisher and Teixeira grounded out. Inning over. In fact, Lee never allowed another baserunner.

He was at 122 pitches through eight innings, and Manager Ron Washington was ready to send him out for the ninth. But then Texas hung six runs on the New York bullpen in the top of the inning. So, Lee put on his windbreaker and watched the end from the dugout.

He’ll be rested and ready for Game 7, if there is one. Set the DVR.