Cliff Lee Moves from Off-Screen to Center Stage

published October 18, 2010

Cue the shark music.

Dah-DUNH.  Dah-DUNH.

There’s something especially frightening about an unseen menace lurking just off-screen.

The Yankees know all about that.

Dah-DUNH, Dah-DUNH, DUNH-dah DUNH-dah DUNH-dah DUNH-dah…

The specter of Cliff Lee hovered over the first two games of the Texas-New York ALCS, a sinister grin on its ghostly face as the Rangers took five-run leads in each.  The Yankees came back to win game one on Friday with a run in the seventh and five in the eighth, or they might be facing an 0-2 deficit tonight with the lefthander’s corpus on the mound against them.

In seven postseason starts, Lee is 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA, six walks, 54 strikeouts.  He beat the Yankees twice in the World Series last year, and twice in three starts against them this season.  I doubt that New York tanked the last ten days of the season, when they lost eight of 11 against Tampa Bay and the Red Sox, to avoid a first-round matchup against him — but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

With the split of the first two games, however, Texas is right where the Yankees wouldn’t want them: best three of five, with Lee starting the next game and the last one.

The last time a pitcher loomed so prominently over the feel of a series, it also involved a Texas team and one from New York: the Houston Astros and New York Mets in the 1986 NLCS.

The pitcher was Mike Scott, a hard-throwing journeyman who blossomed into an intimidating presence thanks to either a 90+ mile per hour splitter or a newfound ability or willingness to scuff the ball.  Either way, Scott was a monster in the LCS that year, winning game one with a 1-0 seven-hitter, then holding the Mets to three hits in game four.

As game six unfolded, the Mets, despite leading the series 3 games to 2, felt a sense of desperation when they went into the ninth inning trailing by three.  They wanted no part of Scott in game seven, and staged a rally in the ninth to tie the score, pulling out a dramatic victory in sixteen innings.  There is no question the tension of the game was heightened by the Mets’ desire to keep the ball out of Mike Scott’s hands.

The presence of Lee in the Texas rotation makes this series a more interesting proposition than past matchups between these two teams.  The Rangers aren’t trying to sneak by with the likes of Aaron Sele and Rick Helling; they now have an ace, and another solid lefty in C.J. Wilson.  New York was just four games over .500 when facing a left-handed starter this season, twenty-four over against right-handers.

But a pair of Yankee lefthanders will have a lot to say about how the series plays out as well.  Andy Pettitte is 5-0 in his last six postseason starts, and C.C. Sabathia can’t be as bad as he looked in the early going on Friday night.  Texas struggled some against lefthanders this season, due in part to Josh Hamilton’s.789 OPS against them as opposed to his 1.163 mark against righties.   But Ian Kinsler (.957 OPS v. southpaws), Vlad Guerrero (.932), and Nelson Cruz (.976) should be able to pick up the slack.

The ALCS is a much more even affair than the National League’s matchup, where San Francisco has the equivalent of a puncher’s chance against the loaded Phillies.  The Giants’ pitching will have to be exceptional for the team to advance, good enough to offset all of Philadelphia’s other advantages.  The Phillies’ pitching is of course pretty great as well, but Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez (despite Sunday night’s result) have at least the potential to pull the upset.

Despite all that, and the rumble of the bass-line as the dorsal fin appears, it should be noted that the ace is not always a winner when those pesky game sevens roll around.  Roger Clemens came up short in the LCS in 2003 and 2004 and in the 2001 World Series; Pedro Martinez failed in 2003; even the great Bob Gibson lost a World Series game seven, to Detroit in 1968.

But there are plenty of top starters who were expected to come through in the ultimate showdown and did just that: Jack Morris in the 1991 World Series; Orel Hershiser in the NLCS in 1988; Frank Viola in the Series in 1987; the tag-team of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson in the World Series in 2001.  The Rangers would be happy not to have to find out if Cliff Lee belongs in their company; the chance that he might makes this week’s ALCS one of the most compelling in years.

Dah-DUNH.  Dah-DUNH…

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