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A masterful job interview in New York

Tuesday, October 19, 2010; D1

NEW YORK

Perhaps once in a generation the New York Yankees' money actually works against them. Oh, you're not buying that idea? Okay, how about once a century? All right, how about never - until Monday night. That's when Cliff Lee held his $100 million free agent job interview on the pitching mound in Yankee Stadium.

Perhaps no man in any profession has ever made such a public and indisputable case for his future salary - and done it at such an astronomical and demoralizing cost to his future employer.

The Rangers' lefty, who's become the King of October the last two seasons, beat the Bombers, 8-0, with eight brilliant two-hit innings of 13-strikeout majesty as Texas took a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series.

What Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum couldn't deliver in their Saturday duel in Philadelphia, Lee placed on glorious display in the packed but almost silent Big Ballpark in the Bronx. Lee, who held a 2-0 lead from the first inning through the eighth, until the Rangers exploded for six runs in the ninth and left Yankee Stadium almost 90 percent empty.

Afterward, Rangers President Nolan Ryan was asked how much it would cost to re-sign Lee this winter. "Go next door and ask them," Ryan said. "I think he got their attention."

So, relish watching Lee ruin the Yankees' season while the torture lasts. Next year, he'll just be one of them. Until then, enjoy.

"Cliff was great tonight, to say the least," said Andy Pettitte who worked seven fine, two-run innings. "I haven't seen many games like that pitched [against us] in Yankee Stadium. Maybe Josh Beckett in the ['03] World Series." Freudian slip? That game ended the Yanks year.

Name a pitch - fastball, cutter, change-up or curve - then pick a specific spot slightly bigger than a baseball and, for 122 pitches, 82 of them strikes, that's where the 6-foot-3 Lee hurled the ball. Greg Maddux had such command, but not the lanky Lee's power-pitching repertoire. This evening left behind one grave question: how can Lee's ERA possibly be 3.85? Doesn't it seem like the true number has mistakenly been multiplied by two?

"Cliff Lee is human. He has given up runs before," said Yankees Manager Joe Girardi testily. "I don't think we're in trouble. We're not down 3-0 [in games] and it's the bottom of the ninth."

Suddenly, the Yankees are a desperate conglomerate. Actually, the Yanks aren't so much in a hole as a kind of half-dug Ranger grave. Should there be a Game 7, they'd see Lee.

Oh, how the Yankees lust after the lefty who seems to have perfected the mechanics of the pitching motion to the point where almost every pitch not only hits the catcher's glove but, is it possible, smacks the pocket. They tried to trade for him in midseason, thought they had a deal with Seattle, but didn't. Texas did. Now they'll have to wait until he's no longer a Ranger to buy him.

However, by then their '10 season may go down in Yankee annals as just another utterly wasted year like - oh, '01, '02, '03, '04, '05, '06, '07 and '08 - when everyone in the sport can spend the winter laughing at the Yankees. They spent how much? And they won what? Nothing, again?

Only one thing truly proves the value of a pitcher to the Yankee brass: beating the most expensive team in baseball, which happens to be the one they own. So, to drive up your price in the open market, your best strategy is to lick the Yanks themselves. The higher the stakes and the greater the tension involved in the battle, the better to make your point.

So, Lee, just following best capitalist business practices of the Yanks core fan base - the Wall Streeters who are the ones with bonuses big enough to afford Yankee tickets - reached deep into the Yanks' hip pocket, pulled out their big blue wallet and started peeling off million-dollar Steinbrenner bucks for himself.

Until Monday night, only Bob Gibson had ever struck out 10 or more men three times in a row in postseason history. He did it in 1967-'68. Since then, even with an extended postseason format, no one had done it three times in the same year. Now someone has: Lee.

"I do the same thing every game," Lee said. "I work the fastball in and out. I make a pitch and see how they swing. You 'read the bat,' then make adjustments [to what they are anticipating]. That's playing the game - never-ending adjustments."

The irony of this night is almost ridiculous. With their last big-money free agent stud pitcher, A.J. Burnett, now living in the garage behind the Yankees' doghouse after an awful season, New York is doubly desperate for another top-of-the-rotation pitcher to pair with CC Sabathia.

And who but Burnett, with the 10-15 record, the 5.36 ERA and absolutely no credibility with his own fans, is due to start Game 4 for the Yanks? Can he win? Sure. Do the fans who booed the Yanks in the ninth inning as their bullpen gave up four insurance runs think that the sleeved-out right-hander is the answer? No way.

With Pettitte, 38, thinking about retirement, the Yanks are obsessed with Lee, Lee and nobody but Lee. They couldn't want him any more if he'd been drawn by Stan Lee and wore a cape.

He's the Yanks offseason auction dream. He's the prize they covet so that they can shamelessly try to buy another world title like the one they bought last year.

However, for Lee to make the absolute most obscene pile of money - a consummation the late-blooming 32-year-old devoutly wishes - the best way to close the deal would be to utterly dominate the Yankees themselves. He did it twice in the Series last year when he was a Phillie. Why not underline the point?

The mound might as well have been waist-deep in thousand-dollar bills every time Lee took the rubber. And he might as well have had a snow shovel to collect them. In his seven previous postseason starts his ERA has been a minuscule 1.44. Now, you can't find it with a microscope.

Lee's only difficulty on this amazing night was his own stuff - nobody could hit it. When he's given a quick lead, he's often the type to turn in quick quiet victories, at least in midseason. He throws strikes to every edge at every speed from 76 to 93 mph and innings fly past. This season, he walked only 18 men. His goal, he says, go a full year without walking anybody.

However, because the Yanks couldn't even put the ball in play against him, fluffing off weak foul balls before eventually striking out, Lee had an uncharacteristically high pitch count by midgame. Yet it merely allowed him top show off his durability. His three pitches to the last hitter he faced, Curtis Granderson, who'd previously fanned on a slow curve, were all fastballs: 92, 93 and 93 mph and all called strikes.

"Lets see," you could practically see Lee's lips moving on the mound, "if I can just strike out a few more of these clowns it ought to be worth an extra $10 or $20 million."

The Yanks have created a monster, all right. The more they face Lee, the more obvious they can't hit him. They've already bought Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Granderson and Nick Swisher for 76 bazillion dollars, plus frequent flier miles, to flesh out their feeble lineup with Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada.

The better the Yanks get on paper, the more Lee keeps throwing "scissors." And, as every kid knows, scissors always cuts paper. This time, to shreds.

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