By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 2:07 AM
SAN FRANCISCO -- Cliff Lee's earned run average in eight postseason games over the past two years was 1.26 heading into this World Series. As such, he was quite rightly the focal point, the fulcrum and the fascination of everyone who analyzed this battle between San Francisco's "misfits and castoffs" and the Claws and Antlers of Texas.
After Game 1 of this 106th Series, Lee's ERA is 11.57.
Put that in your MIT baseball simulation formula, make the computer whir through a million permutations and tell me how that changes your seam-head view of who's going to win this Series.
San Francisco didn't just bash Lee for seven runs in 42/3 innings in an 11-7 victory. They bashed him for five ringing doubles, three singles, a walk and a hit batter. One run was unearned, but the evening's cumulative effect was conclusive - the Giants' lineup, full of right-handed batters and low on macho free swingers - seems as well suited as any team to dealing with the superb lefty.
They don't own him. But they might hold a lease.
"Baseball, it's a crazy game," said little Freddy Sanchez, a former batting champion and punch-hitting pest personified who doubled to right, doubled to left, then doubled to center in his three at-bats against Lee.
How on earth did the Giants manage to rout a pitcher who had dominated the Yankees (three times), as well as the Rockies, Dodgers and Rays in the last 13 months? How could Lee need 104 pitches to get just 14 outs when, in some postseason games, that's all he's needed for 27 outs.
For starters, Lee couldn't control his slow curveball, constantly leaving it high. So, that one mechanical glitch limited his ability to establish a speed differential of more than 15 mph between his fastest and slowest pitches. But, for a man with a six-pitch arsenal, that's like complaining about a hangnail.
Otherwise, everything was lined up for Lee. He didn't get squeezed on ball-strike calls, had little if any bad luck, was staked to a 2-0 lead over Tim Lincecum and was working on a balmy Bay night in a vast park that eats hitters alive.
Yet the Giants well and truly bashed him. How?
Most teams, especially those full of high-priced sluggers and free swingers, seldom force Lee to throw many pitches. He feasts on their greed. But the Giants are humble. Not one of them had more than 26 homers or 86 RBI. Some, like Sanchez are pesky all-fields slap hitters. Buster Posey, a rookie, hits to all fields, stays back on off-speed pitches and got a crucial RBI single on an almost perfect Lee change-up. Inning after inning, Lee found himself needing five, six or even more pitches to get a single out.
"We've added a lot of patient hitters as the season has gone on. It adds up. Now [we have] Pat Burrell, Posey, [Aubrey] Huff, Sanchez, Andres Torres," said Giant Manager Bruce Bochy.
Added Rangers Manager Ron Washington: "I saw the the Giants work him pretty good - 32 pitches in the [two-run] third inning. He ran out of gas there [in the fifth]. They got to Cliff. We didn't get to Lincecum."
So, we add this conundrum to the long list of question about baseball that may never be answered: How is it that the Yankees, who are famous for running up pitch counts on everybody, can't do it against Lee, but the low-offense Giants, apparently can?
Now, in a blink, it is the Giants who have home-field advantage. And another trend has jumped up squarely in our faces. Both the Rangers and Giants are predominantly right-handed hitting teams. The only fearsome Ranger lefty is Josh Hamilton and Aubrey Huff is as close to a scary lefty as the Giants can summon. To beat either team, you want top right-handed pitchers, not lefties.
Yet everybody seemed to overlook the fact that the first two Giant starters in this Series are power-pitching right-handers while Texas is opening with a pair of lefties, Lee and C.J. Wilson, who is sometimes seen as Lee Lite. If Game 2, with Matt Cain working against Wilson, bears any similarity to Game 1 the favored Rangers will return to Texas with a world of work to do.
The hidden hero for the Giants was starter Lincecum. His pitching line will look homely, allowing four runs in 52/3 innings on eight hits and two walks. But he persevered after being hit in the foot by a first-inning, one-hop smash and later after being drilled in the back of the right thigh by a line drive.
Lincecum could have folded. He not only fell behind, 2-0, but suffered the indignity of an RBI double by Lee on a fake-bunt swing away. And he botched a simple run-down play with a brain-freeze blunder. Yet Lincecum settled down long enough for the Giants to mount a stunning six-run fifth inning which was capped by a three-run homer by Juan Uribe off of reliever Darren O'Day.
Yes, that would be the same Uribe who bats seventh, yet had a walk-off sacrifice fly and a game-winning homer in the NL Championship Series against the Phillies.
"My team came back [with a two-run third] and gave me a chance to settle down there for a few innings," Lincecum said.
Said Sanchez, who finished 4 for 4 with 3 RBI: "We weren't too worried. That's our team. When we're down, we're fighting."
Perhaps the core quandary of this Series is whether Lee can continue to stay on a par in post-season with Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Or does Lee revert to the mean of an excellent, but hardly immortal career?
Lee has a Cy Young award and precise control that equals any pitcher in modern history. But he's never fanned more than 185 men in a season and only had one season ERA under 3.14. His career ERA of 3.85 isn't a typo either. His record the last two seasons is 26-22, not 46-2 and his ERA is a combined 3.20 - very fine, but not sublime.
However, until this game, Lee has reached a level of focus in postseason that allows him to achieve a higher level of performance. In an atmosphere of tension and impatience that unnerves many hitters, his strikeout totals skyrocketed.
All baseball games would, ideally, be watched under the same microscope we apply to the Series; how much more dramatic, strategic and constantly shifting the sport would seem. But that's not the real world. However, at this time of year, we do.
So we get to see how, bit by bit, the nervous Giants got their feet under them, bedeviled Lee into deep counts, built several rallies and finally drove him from the mound.
That fifth inning arose out of nothing. With one out and nobody on base, all hell broke loose. By the time Uribe's three-run homer landed, Lee was watching, blank-faced in the Rangers' dugout.
That made the score 8-2. In a blink we realized again how little a 2-0 lead really is, even when it's in the hands of Cliff Lee, a pitcher whose illustrations need no longer be drawn by Stan Lee.
When this Series gets to Texas, the Rangers will send Lee to the mound again. He may have his curveball. But the aura that he somehow turns himself from an outstanding pitcher into an utterly invincible superhero in the postseason will be gone. Forever?