Rangers' Cliff Lee has chance to be known as the best ever as World Series begins

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:28 AM

SAN FRANCISCO - The names in play are some of the greatest in the game's history: Koufax. Mathewson. Gibson. For a sport that venerates its history, they are names that resonate, from the halls of Cooperstown to the shores of San Francisco Bay. And they explain, better than any numbers or anecdotes, exactly what it is that we are dealing with right now in regards to Cliff Lee.

There are plenty of players in this World Series who have a chance to make history, attain legend status, achieve something unprecedented. Baseball presents that opportunity on a daily basis. But only one player has a chance to become known as the greatest of all time.

That player is Lee, the Texas Rangers' ace left-hander, who will start Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night against right-hander Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants. Lincecum is one of the great pitchers and great characters in baseball - a shaggy-haired imp who also happens to be the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner.

But he is no Lee. At this point, no one is. Lee's only peers are the ones named above, the ones enshrined in the Hall of Fame. And soon, even they might be surpassed as the best postseason pitchers in history.

With a lifetime postseason record of 7-0 and an ERA of 1.26, constructed exclusively in 2009 and 2010, Lee already has ensured a place among the all-time greats. No pitcher in baseball history has a better career postseason record, and among pitchers who have made at least five postseason starts, only Sandy Koufax (0.95) and Christy Mathewson (1.06) have lower ERAs.

Only Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson can match Lee's mark of five 10-strikeout games in the postseason. In baseball history, there have been eight postseason games in which a pitcher has struck out at least 10 while failing to issue a single walk, and Lee owns four of them. And that's not even counting his 13-strikeout, one-walk gem at Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.

"What he did at Yankee Stadium," said Rangers outfielder Jeff Francoeur, "was the most impressive pitching performance I've ever seen. If I [could pick] one guy to pitch for me in the postseason, I'd want Cliff Lee."

None of it guarantees anything in this series, of course. The Giants don't have a batter who hit more than 26 homers or drove in more than 86 runs this season, and they have scored more than four runs only once in more than a month. But they are a resourceful, confident team that already this postseason has won games started by Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson.

Nor does any of it - not even a World Series championship - guarantee anything beyond these next 10 days or so. If you thought Lee was the focal point of this postseason, wait until the opening bell rings for baseball's free-agent market. He will be the prized target, and could command a contract of $150 million or more when it is all over.

With the New York Yankees - having seen firsthand over the past two postseasons the devastation he can bring - preparing to make a run at Lee, the Rangers will be playing this series with the understanding it may be the last they see of their ace in a Rangers uniform. They will attempt to keep him, of course, but it remains to be seen whether they can keep pace with the Yankees.

"We're not going into it with a pea shooter," joked new Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg about the Lee sweepstakes. "We can't control what the Yankees or any other team chooses to offer. We can only control our own decisions, and we know we are going to have to be aggressive financially. We are prepared to do that."

One Rangers executive handicapped the field thusly: "Sixty percent, he goes to the Yankees. Thirty-five percent, he signs back with us. Five percent, the field." The Rangers are hoping their proximity to Lee's Arkansas home, the familiarity with the organization and - especially - a World Series title would help sway him to their side, even if the money is not quite equal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company