If he’s not impeccable in the strike zone or doesn’t attack the plate with his breaking balls and vicious curveballs, then he’s not a godlike specimen. Every so often, he exposes his human side and misses the strike zone or allows unearned runs in a perplexing fashion.
It was absolutely a nightmarish night in San Francisco, at a moment when much was a stake. Very rarely does Cliff Lee diminish on the mound amid the grandest stage in baseball.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time near the Bay in one of the most demoralizing World Series games, a contest that Lee desires to erase eternally, a contest he badly blundered and a contest where vulnerability revealed a rampant turn of events.
This, of course, wasn’t the time or place to perform the choke job, but it simply happened and he suddenly threw abnormally. Sometimes, the ripple effect of his customary command isn’t nearly dynamic, but it’s eccentric anytime he surrenders hits against his opponents. Sometimes, it just isn’t the night to be an invincible ace on the mound.
So what happened to the unhittable Lee?
He simply stumbled in the electric confines of AT&T Park, with the crowd waving orange pom-poms. Texas manager Ron Washington yanked arguably the best pitcher in baseball, in the middle of the fifth inning when Lee wore a distraught, solicitous stare.
This was, after all, the most scrutinized outing in his near-perfect career, serving as a significant element in the Texas Rangers' beautiful story and turnaround season.
On a shaky night, he allowed the Giants to compile double-digit runs and steal Game 1 in a decisive 11-7 win.
Without his flawless command, he was bullied on the mound and never had rhythm of his pitches, partly for falling behind in the count and having trouble executing his scintillating, hanging curveball.
Nolan Ryan left the ballpark speechless, confounded after a mysterious game that had everyone wondering what exactly happened to Lee. It was his first postseason loss in nine starts in which the Giants assembled brilliant hitting and took advantage of Lee’s bungles.
Was this a hangover? Maybe.
But more frightening was Lee’s inability to retire his opponents, leaving pitches in the middle of the strike zone or giving up walks on his frequent misses over the plate.
The biggest disappointment for the most intriguing pitcher in the majors happened so quickly in the fifth. Moments later, an erratic performance turned disastrous as Lee continued to have difficulty locating his fastball, had defects in throwing his cutters, and had glitches tossing his unpredictable and unhittable curveball.
“I was a little erratic and trying to find it,” Lee said. “For whatever reason, I couldn’t get consistent locating pitches. That’s the games where you’ve got to go to Plan B and battle, and that’s what I was trying to do. They made me throw a ton of pitches, and in that fifth inning I’ve got to do a better job with damage control.”
He has to locate his fastballs and stay composed, too. Or else it will be a long series for a ball club that has endured four decades of anguish, now aiming to win its first World Series in franchise history.
Before the opener of the Fall Classic, Lee was impressive and extraordinary of throwing the ball over the plate to strike out his opponents. He was divine during the regular-season and had never been described as dazed or confused on the mound, as if he was a minor-leaguer trying to find his way in the big leagues.
His numbers in the regular season were staggering alone, but in the Fall Classic he wasn’t careful in the strike zone and had a disastrous fifth inning. However, in the regular season, 71.2 percent of his pitches were strikes, the highest number for any starter in 11 years. Prior to the World Series, in three postseason starts, he was spectacular and threw strikes 71.3 percent of the time.
Rarely did an opponent assemble a remarkable shred of hitting. Rarely, if any, did Lee surrender seven earned runs in a game. His earned run average was 1.26, trailing only Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson, until he pitched poorly in the World Series and now has an ERA of 11.57.
“This is exactly what we wanted,” outfielder Cody Ross said. “We wanted to beat him.”
And they did just that.
“We wanted to beat whoever was on the mound,” he said. “It could have been Cy Young.”
He certainly didn’t have Cy Young stuff on this night.
Either way, that is, Lee is just as beatable as the next big-name ace. Never has there been a horrifying scene this horrendous, but on this occasion, he was hittable subsequently for giving up seven runs on eight hits, including five doubles.
At the end of the season, he’ll be the hottest free agent on the market and has already been in consideration of signing an eight-year, $160 million deal from the Yankees.
But after the left-hander morphed into a defenseless ace and had trouble revoking danger, he has to prove that he’s still worthy of pocketing valuable cash by next spring. Which I still believe he is targeted as a top free agent in the market this offseason and could fittingly suit a developing rotation. Assuming he’ll stay in Texas next season, Lee is a reliable ace even if he had one formidable outing.
“I expect to be successful every time I take the mound,” Lee said.
I’d imagine, especially in his contract year.
“Everybody has such high expectations of Cliff,” Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton said. “Cliff has such high expectations of himself. We know what kind of pitcher he is. We know he can dominate a game. But he’s human, too. He didn’t have a bad performance tonight. He had a normal pitcher’s performance, but he’s not a normal pitcher either.”
True, he’s not a normal pitcher. No one is for that matter. But he is expected to perform brilliantly as if he’s an unhittable perfectionist. For a change, the Giants hit Lee harder than ever.
Along came the fifth inning, when they shredded him and manufactured runs to quickly erase the Rangers' 2-0 lead, he saw his night shrink and end all so miserably. Of all the games, after he hadn’t allowed a run in 16 innings, he blew it. His relief Darren O’Day suddenly stepped onto the mound and blew it, too, and yielded a three-run homer to Juan Uribe.
As for the Giants, Freddy Sanchez had three doubles in his first three at-bats, not to mention that Huff finished 2-for-3 against Lee and Cody Ross had an RBI single. Even worse, the Giants were 5-of-10 with runners in scoring position against Lee.
What a strange night.
He failed to tie Bob Gibson. But it clearly wasn’t about individual feats, and was instead about prevailing in an urgent game. He couldn’t last seven innings for the first time in seven starts. For all we know, he could have been a bit fatigued and worn down.
“You’ve got to give credit to their hitters,” said Lee. I didn’t work ahead in the count…I was missing with my fastball. I was missing with my cutter…I missed out over the plate…It’s not acceptable.”
For a guy who is very hard on himself, he sure seems ready to rebound from such a devastating blow. Knowingly, he won’t have an encore of meltdowns.
It was just a bad night. After all, he is human.