Cliff Lee wears forbearance like the wisp of the whiskers below his lower lip. At work or at rest, while crushing a Sodoku puzzle or an online chess opponent, Lee has the cool, understated mien of someone handed the answers to a test the night before the exam. Control, that temperamental temptress all pitchers woo, is his greatest conquest.
Last year, in a taxi on his way to start the World Series opener at Yankee Stadium, Lee found Manhattan traffic so hopelessly gnarled that he jumped out of the cab mid-block and headed on foot for a subway station, though he wasn't quite sure where he was going. Two trains, a call to the visiting clubhouse manager and a walk of several blocks later, Lee, typically a pious disciple of routine, walked into the Phillies' clubhouse an hour late. "Most guys would be all hot and bothered and be saying, 'You wouldn't believe what happened,' " Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer says. "Not Cliff. None of us even knew anything was up. You couldn't tell anything with Cliff. It was just another day."
All Lee did that night was become the first pitcher in World Series history to spin a complete game with no walks, no earned runs and 10 strikeouts. "You never see him upset," Moyer adds. "You never see him angry. He just goes with the flow."
Lee is back in the World Series, this time as a Ranger. The lefthander is more than the central character of this Series: He looms above it like the Sun above the Earth. There are only the days Lee is scheduled to pitch (Game 1, on Wednesday at San Francisco's AT&T Park, and Game 5 in Texas on Monday) and the days spent waiting for him to get the ball again. He has joined the likes of Bob Gibson in 1968, the year he had a 1.12 ERA; Sandy Koufax in 1963, following his breakout 25--5 season; and Christy Mathewson in 1905, flush with 31 wins and a 1.28 ERA heading into the second World Series.
Lee has tiptoed as close to the edge of perfection as any pitcher before him, especially come October. In eight career postseason starts, including three gems this year, Lee is 7--0 with a 1.26 ERA. In four of those eight outings Lee has struck out at least 10 batters without a walk. No one else has done that in the postseason twice. In fact, those four dominant performances represent a threshold attained only four times in the other 2,568 postseason games ever played.
At 32, and just weeks away from dominating the free-agent market in the same way he has the postseason, Lee only now is passing through his prime. But already he's deserving of a place on baseball's Mount Rushmore of postseason pitchers, where Gibson, Koufax and Mathewson have left room for a fourth. Actually, Lee's postseason line of batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage against (.173/.197/.229) is better across the board than those of all three October masters.
"We've got our work cut out for us, we know that," said San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean after the Giants hung three NLCS losses on Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the trio of Philadelphia aces who had been 20--4 since Aug. 14. "We've stared down great pitching in this [NLCS]. The tenacity of our guys is something else. We'll compete with anyone. Somehow our offense finds a way to get our pitchers three or four runs to win."
Said Moyer about Lee, "If you don't enjoy watching what he's doing right now, you'll never enjoy pitching."
This is a World Series for aficionados, the first one in eight years without big-box franchises out of the Atlantic corridor or big Midwestern cities. It will not rank among the four most-watched Fall Classics since baseball's contract with Fox began in 2000; those all involved the Yankees or the Red Sox. This one is for people who favor independent films with well-written narratives over mass-market major-studio productions. The Giants and the Rangers, as if sharing scriptwriters, even clinched their Series spots in precisely the same way: by knocking off the defending league champion (Phillies and Yankees) in six games, with the final out coming on a called third strike against the opponent's cleanup hitter and highest-paid player (Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez).
With those strikeouts, the meme of parity in baseball spread further. Half the 30 franchises in baseball now have played in the past 10 World Series. Either Texas (49 years) or San Francisco (56 years) will end one of the two longest world championship droughts this side of the famously dry Cubs and Indians.