By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 1:16 AM
NEW YORK - He had hovered over this American League Championship Series for the past four days, without so much as throwing a pitch. Such is the power of Cliff Lee. Fans of the Texas Rangers were counting down the hours until they could get him on the mound. Fans of the New York Yankees were counting down the weeks until they could get him in pinstripes.
And when Lee jogged out to the Yankee Stadium mound and took the ball in his hand Monday night in Game 3, what followed was a promise delivered. For eight exquisite innings, Lee dominated the most potent offense in baseball, leading the Rangers to an 8-0 victory and cementing his credentials as the premier postseason pitcher of his generation.
The win gave the Rangers a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 on Tuesday night expected to pit Rangers right-hander Tommy Hunter against Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett.
Josh Hamilton's two-run homer against Yankees starter Andy Pettitte three batters into the game held up as the difference - though the Rangers padded their lead with six runs against the Yankees' woeful bullpen in the ninth, sending the majority of the crowd of 49,840 scurrying for the exits.
Pettitte, the winningest postseason pitcher in history (19-10), recovered from the Hamilton homer - which came one batter after a Michael Young single at the end of a fierce nine-pitch at-bat - and pitched wonderfully, lasting seven innings and giving up nothing else. But he was no Lee. These days, no one is.
In the days leading up to Game 3, Roy Halladay was beaten, CC Sabathia was knocked out in the fifth inning and Tim Lincecum was mediocre in victory. And so, as Lee took the mound Monday night, the whole overblown Year/Month/Week/Day of the Pitcher story line was in mortal jeopardy.
But Lee rescued it with an eight-inning, 122-pitch tour de force. His win Monday night lifted his career record in the playoffs to 8-0, and dropped his ERA to 1.26. This postseason, in three starts, he is 3-0, 0.75 with an otherworldly strikeout-to-walk ratio of 34 to 1. "Phenomenal performance," said Rangers president and part-owner Nolan Ryan, a Hall of Fame pitcher himself. "He's the most consistent pitcher I've ever seen."
By striking out 13 Yankees on Monday, Lee became just the second pitcher in history with three consecutive postseason starts of 10 or more strikeouts. The other? Bob Gibson in 1967-68. It is an association with which Lee was fully deserving Monday night. He was Gibsonian.
"Pretty much a masterpiece," said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
In the old glory days, the Yankees took on every ace in the land - Maddux and Smoltz in their primes, Schilling and Martinez in their twilights, the young Beckett - and frequently prevailed. But Lee is another beast altogether, and he is even better now than he was a year ago, when he beat the Yankees twice in the World Series as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Lee, sporting a day's worth of stubble, a soul patch below his lower lip and a famously filthy, rosin-stained cap, bounded around the diamond, sprinting on and off the field, fielding his position flawlessly and inducing one hideous swing after another.
The Yankees spoke mysteriously in recent days of a "plan" they had against Lee. But as Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth - and that, to the extent that there is an appropriate baseball equivalent, is precisely what Lee did to the Yankees.
"He shut us down," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "This was one of those games where you try to forget about it as quickly as you can."
Lee allowed just three base runners - a walk to Mark Teixeira, and singles by Jorge Posada and Brett Gardner - and only Gardner, in the sixth inning, advanced into scoring position. He was on third, thanks to a stolen base and a grounder to the right side, when Teixeira grounded out to shortstop to strand him there.
Rangers Manager Ron Washington sent Lee back out for the eighth with 109 pitches, and Lee delivered a spotless 1-2-3 inning with two more paint-the-corner strikeouts, his 12th and 13th of the night. He would have gone back out for the ninth, Washington said later, had the Rangers not put up a six-spot against the Yankees' overmatched bullpen.
"We were going to ride him," Washington said.
Instead, with the lead up to eight runs, Washington took the opportunity to give an easy, low-pressure ninth inning to Neftali Feliz, his rookie closer. But while the ninth belonged to Feliz, the night belonged to Lee.
How much is it going to cost now to sign Lee when he hits free agency this winter? Asked that very question a half-hour after Game 3 ended, Ryan, leaning against a wall in a hallway outside the Rangers' clubhouse, grinned and said: "Go next door and ask [the Yankees]. I think he got their attention tonight."