By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 1:11 AM
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - It is not his fault David Price looked only average Tuesday night. He could have been better, yes, especially in those two excruciating moments when he held the ball at first base, his back to the action for a split-second too long. But Price is a former first overall pick who was pairing mid-90s fastballs with knee-knocking sliders.
There is a primary reason the Tampa Bay Rays are splitting for the winter after a 5-1 loss in Game 5 of their American League Division Series and the Texas Rangers are preparing to host the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. It is also Price's biggest sin, one he shares with just about every other pitcher on this planet. David Price is great. But he's no Cliff Lee.
Lee, equipped with a cutter from hell and a curveball that is a gift from God, took this series by the throat in Game 1. He choked the life out of it Tuesday night. At the end of the eighth inning, he walked into the Rangers' dugout and nodded at Manager Ron Washington.
"He didn't say it in his words," Washington said afterward. "He just nodded his head, saying, 'I've got this.' "
And so Lee finished his masterpiece himself. He struck out 11 batters and walked none in a complete game, further cementing himself as baseball's reigning king of October.
Lee became one of four starting pitchers to lead his team to wins in the first seven postseason starts of his career. Lee's 11 strikeouts gave him 21 for the series, an ALDS record, to go with zero walks. There have been eight playoff starts in which a pitcher struck out 10 batters and walked none. Clifton Phifer Lee has made four of them.
"This is what we got him for," said Rangers President Nolan Ryan, who traded for Lee in July. "What we knew and saw in Cliff Lee is that he was going to be your go-to guy."
The Rangers won their first postseason series in franchise history, which began in 1961 when they were the Washington Senators. It was also the first series in which the road team won every game. The Rangers used aggressive base running - aided by lackadaisical defense by the Rays - to score their first three runs. Ian Kinsler slammed the door in the ninth with a two-run homer off Rafael Soriano.
What began as a duel between two of baseball's best pitchers ended with two franchises at divergent moments.
The Rangers dogpiled a few feet from home plate. They will host the New York Yankees, a team steeped in past postseason glories against a team with none, in Game 1 of the ALCS starting Friday.
"Right now," third baseman Michael Young said, "this is the best team in franchise history."
The Rays skulked back into their clubhouse, forced to wonder how they will replace several core members from a small-market team that twice in three years toppled the Yankees and Boston Red Sox and finished atop the American League East. Their comparatively minuscule operating budget may force them to field a team next year without at least one of, and perhaps all of, the following players: left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena and pitchers James Shields and Matt Garza.
"I believe we're going to contend next year," Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. "I know a lot of people will think I'm nuts."
For the way this year ended, the Rays can blame Lee. He threw 120 pitches, a staggering 90 strikes. The only run he allowed came on three straight weakly hit singles in the third. He allowed three balls to a hitter only twice. His best pitch may have been his curveball, but he did not even use it his first time through the lineup, relying instead on his fastball and vicious cutter.
The Rays can also fault themselves. The Rangers took control by scoring three runs on daring base-running moves, twice with Price clutching the ball at first base as audacious Rangers scampered home
"We made too many spring training mistakes," Maddon said. "Things that you cover from the very first day."
They started in the first inning. Elvis Andrus, having stolen second base after a single, bolted for third base on a pitch to Josh Hamilton. Hamilton rolled a ball to Pena's right. As Pena fielded, Andrus circled third base, his eyes across the diamond, his feet shuffling. Once Pena flipped the ball, Andrus sprinted home and scored without a throw, sliding in to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
The Rangers' second run scored in the fourth, when one bit of bad baseball trumped another. With two outs, Nelson Cruz launched a deep drive to center field and took several slow, immodest steps to watch the ball's flight. When the ball clanged off the fence, he ended up on second rather than third. On the next pitch, Cruz took off to steal third, a questionable decision with two outs. Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach rifled the ball into left field. Cruz scurried home, and this time it was okay to jog the last few steps.
In the sixth, Vladimir Guerrero took off from second on a double play ball hit to Pena. Price scampered over to cover first for what would have been the final out of the inning, but his feet shuffled at the bag, which he stepped on an instant too late. Guerrero, running with his infamous (and slow) gait, sprinted home, sliding in barely safe under Shoppach's tag.
"We did in a way not too many thought the Texas Rangers could do it," Washington said. "We ran the base paths tonight."
When it ended, the Rangers surrounded Lee on the mound. He tried to break free at first, then relented. For once, he was not in control, and he didn't seem to mind.
In the booze-drenched clubhouse celebration, Lee took a pull off a Bud Light and said something no one could bet against, not as long as he's taking the mound for the Rangers: "We're not finished yet."