Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ice Man Cometh

Seriously, everyone. I don't mean to crack out the hyperbole this early in the morning, but I can say with total honesty that I never remember seeing a pitcher dominate with the stoic attitude that Phillies' ace Cliff Lee had right from the first pitch of the 2009 World Series on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, lasting all the way through his post-game press conference. In between was one of the most brilliant gems in World Series history, as Lee absolutely mowed down the $208 million Yankees lineup for a complete game earned run shutout in front of the home town fans in the Bronx and a 6-1 victory in Game 1 for Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

It wasn't just that Cliff Lee outdueled Yankees ace CC Sabathia, and it wasn't just that he won a crucial game in the Phillies' quest to become just the fourth team in the long history of major league baseball to repeat as world champions out of the National League. It was the way Lee dominated that has baseball fans still semi-breathless even now, hours after Lee's final and slowest pitch of the night, a 76 mph curve that Jorge Posada swung about a foot over to mercifully send the fans home, all with the first twinges of worry beginning to gnaw at their self-tortured psyches. Even as he faced the best lineup in baseball in his first ever World Series appearance, from the look on Lee's face and the way he performed on the night, you would have thought he was facing a tune-up in single-A ball, because that's just what he made the Yankees look like in Game 1.

The first really striking thing about Lee's performance in Game 1 was his impeccable control. Lee threw 122 pitches in dominating the Bombers, 83 of them for strikes, or more than two-thirds of his pitches. And it's not like he's just serving meatballs up there and getting smacked around. The Yanks recorded six total hits on the night -- three of them from Derek Jeter -- but five were singles with only one double, and none of them came in the same inning until the 9th when the Yanks managed to push their one meaningless unearned run across thanks to a Jimmy Rollins throwing error. So Lee throws a ton of strikes when he's out on the mound, but the players simply cannot him them. Cliff Lee paints the corners and locates the ball as well as anyone in the major leagues when he is on his game, and he certainly is on right now. Take a look at his final line from Game 1 and you will notice that he finished the night with 10 strikeouts and zero walks. 122 pitches, 83 of them strikes, 10 Ks, 0 BBs and 0 earned runs. This is just the fourth time in major league history that a player has struck out double-digits while not walking a single batter, and it's the first time in 107 years of World Series history that a pitcher has done so while also giving up 0 runs. If that ain't the model of a money performance then I just don't know what is.

The other thing that really stood out about Lee if you watched Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday was how cool his actual demeanor, even his physical presence, was throughout and even after the game. In the bottom of the 6th inning when Johnny Damon hit a weak popup back towards the mound instead of moving out of the way like pitchers usually do in yielding to another infielder as to avoid the pitcher injuring himself on the mound, Lee didn't move his feet at all, instead just starting right up at the ball with his hands at his sides, and waiting until almost the last possible second before sticking his glove out, basket-style, and making the catch:

This was about as blase of a play as could possibly be made out in the field, and yet I'm telling you, Cliff Lee wasn't even remotely trying to showboat. He was just that cool on the day. "You know, it was pretty cool," Lee would later explain in the post-game press conference, "It was 15 feet in the air. Pretty simple catch. It came right to me." Then again in the 8th, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano led off with a smash right back up the middle. Up the middle, that is, until Cliff Lee calmly stabbed his glove out fully behind his back and half upside-down and snagged the ball clean. He turned, flipped a slow strike to first base, and that was that. And then with a shrug, a la Michael Jordan after that sixth three-pointer in the first half in Portland, Lee was back to completing his pitching masterpiece.

Even after the game, Lee's incredible sense of calm and confidence still exuded all over the reporters that filled the press room to try to get a sense of his magic. I don't think I ever recall seeing someone so confident, so calm in such a big spot, especially the first time he's ever been on this kind of a stage. Lee explained how hard he works and has worked over his career, and that game time for him is just time to go out and let those skills he has worked so hard to develop take over. He explained that he is a very confident guy, but makes sure not to go over the edge from confident into cocky, and it was believable. He wasn't brazen up there in saying any of this stuff, no matter how it sounds when you read it. He was just being candid. And accurate. And he knows it.

A big shout-out should also be made to 2008 World Series clinching Game 5 defensive MVP Chase Utley, who quieted all the doubters about his allegedly debilitating hip injury by smashing two 95-mph fastballs from CC Sabathia over the right-center field wall in the 3rd and 6th innings to give the Phils all the offense they would need behind their ace on the mound. Despite all the talk about there being too many lefthanders in the Phillies' lineup that could be neutralized by the Yanks' lefty pitchers, Chase Utley became just the second lefty ever to hit two home runs in a World Series game against a lefty pitcher, the first of course being Babe Ruth way back in 1928. Utley also set a new major league record by reaching base safely in his 26th straight postseason game, a truly great record that any Phillies fan would not be surprised with if you've watched these games. In general, you knew things were shaping up well as soon as the Phillies saw their first two batters go down on five pitches, but then managed to drag another 19 pitches more out of Sabathia before he could close out the top half of the first inning. That is another big advantage the Phillies have in this series that I failed to mention in my post yesterday -- the Phils take pitches and work the count better than any team in baseball, and not only does that help Philadelphia's batters be selective in the pitches they choose to hit, but more than anything else it enables the team to get through their opposing starting pitcher and into the bullpen faster, which is key especially when facing other team's top starters like what the Phils faced in Game 1 in CC Sabathia. When Sabathia needs 24 pitches to get out of the first, and another 20-something in the third, you just knew the Phils were in good shape to eventually wear down the pitching as they have done better than anybody throughout the past two seasons.

In the end, only time will tell how crucial this Game 1 loss was for the Yankees. If AJ Burnett comes back and nabs a win in Game 2, going back to Philly with a split is not a bad outcome for the Yankees and really was the most likely outcome after two games all along. But several factors about the loss should weigh heavily on Yankee fans. This was the first time the Yankees have lost at home in this postseason, after taking 2 of 2 in New York against the Twins and then 3 of 3 at home against the Angels to win in six. Moreover, now in four games this season between the two teams -- all of them at Yankee Stadium -- the Phillies have won three of them, with the Yankees' only win coming on May 23 when Brad Lidge blew a 2-run lead in the 9th that saw the Phillies once again bash the ball all over the place and lead throughout the entire game until the end.

The Phillies have gotten to the Yankees' ace Sabathia now on three straight occasions in big spots going back a couple of years, and the Phils have already roughed up AJ Burnett and Andy Pettite as well this season going back to that series in the Bronx in May. This is a team that has beaten already this year basically the entire New York Yankees' staff they will be facing this postseason, and now they have wrestled home-field advantage away from the Yankees before things even really got started in the Bronx.

And there were some disturbing trends in the Yankees' lineup as well. As I mentioned above, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter went 3 for 4 on the day against Lee with two singles and a double. But the rest of the Yankee team went 3 for 28, which is not going to cut in against the defending Champs in the World Series. What's more, the Yankees' power hitters at the core of their lineup -- Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez -- finished the game 0 for 8 between them. This extends a fairly weak postseason so far for Tex, who was easily the Yankees' most productive hitter along with A-Rod on the season, but even more alarming is that it stops what has been a totally dominating postseason at bat so far for A-Rod. Rodriguez had been hitting .438 so far in 10 games this postseason, with 5 home runs and 12 RBIs, so to go 0-4 to start the Series, striking out three out of those four times at that, has got to worry the Yankee fan as much as anything else they saw out there in Game 1, especially given A-Rod's history of megachoking in big spots.

Game 2 is Thursday night at 8pm ET in New York. Yankee fans: your chances of winning the World Series rest heavily right now on the shoulders of AJ Burnett finding a way to quiet down the Phillies lineup. How does that make you feel?

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Blogger 1Queens Up1 said...

I was amazed at Cliff, just like you said cool as ice, like hes been there a million times before.

But it wasnt just him, the whole time was cool, confident and came ready to play. I think the most telling thing was both times after Chase hit his home runs, they showed him the dugout calm and collected. If you had turned the TV at that point in time I doubt you would think this guy just smashed a homerun, heck you might have though he just made a routine out.

And thats the difference between playing to win a World Series, and being a Yankee and playing not to lose a World Series.

Go Pedro!

10:50 PM  
Blogger Bayne_S said...

That is not stoic, Lee seemed almost bored with how easily he dominated Yahkees

12:05 AM  
Blogger DuggleBogey said...

Pretty good.

11:43 AM  
Blogger DuggleBogey said...

Is how I feel.

11:43 AM  
Blogger DuggleBogey said...

Mr. Quiet since game one.

11:43 AM  

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