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Classic-Lee Executed

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A Stan, (Phils ace Cliff) Lee. Pic c/o Carl's Cards, Philly

World Series games undergo a lot more analysis than they should. I definitely don’t have any beef1 with the attention the World Series gets — why would I? I’m not an asshole — but the games themselves, well, there are only a handful. Seven games… name me what Albert Pujols did the first seven games of the season.2 I don’t even think he remembers. But the World Series, well, we scrutinize and theorize, and try and find deep meaning in the accomplishments and failures of grown men doing their job. Some say wrongly — even the best, most attuned athletes have awful (or improbably good) stretches, so what’s a bad week? A good player is still a good player. The games are fun, though, and the attendant scrutiny can make for fine pageantry but is sometimes just noise.

After the game, a 6-1 Phillies win, I took in some analysis — I have these shows on loop in the background for hours, and they seep under my skin — where the commentators glowed describing Philadelphia’s ace Cliff Lee’s inexorable coolness and his pitching. Both were something. Not sure if you watched, but he was dealing. Lee, drafted by the Expos, was traded to Philly from Cleveland midseason this year, and on Tuesday he was incredible. He didn’t walk a guy, he struck out 10, didn’t allow an earned run. He made a couple of highlight-reel plays in the field, and it looked like, in his first World Series game, that he was playing with kids.3

This excellence wasn’t expected, to be sure, but it wasn’t surprising to a fan. Lee was a good pitcher in Cleveland before things turned hectic for him in 2007. After lousy starts that year — he injured his groin in spring, and when he returned he gave up a grip of hits and lost some command — he was sent down to Triple-A. “Everything” was going wrong, he said, and he didn’t progress. The team did well, and got to the American League Championship Series, but he was left off the playoff roster. The Indians didn’t get out of the American League that year, but the next year, Lee was its best pitcher.

It was an improvement across the board. Lee struck out more batters than before — always an important thing4 — and improved on the rest of his prerogatives. He allowed half as many home runs on average in 2008, fewer extra-base hits, and induced twice as many double plays. He still didn’t walk that many batters. He was quick, pounding the zone, and whipped through games in two hours.5 I’m not smart enough to explain why that happened, but I can explain what he did in basic terms: Hitters struck out more, and they didn’t get on base as often. When they reached base, they didn’t get as far on average as they had gotten before. He retired batters quickly, conserving pitches and lasting longer into games. He won more. Not much you can ask for, not from any pitcher.

With baseball, context is everything. A good player is a good player is a good player, and, if you have good ones, you ride your horses.6 Until he gets old or injured, he’s good, and managers and fans know, more or less, what to expect. Of course, when expectations set in, things become more complicated: During which games might this good player excel? Or if he’s rolling now, will he keep rolling tomorrow? Of course, this is where the fun stuff happens.

The best part of Lee’s night Tuesday was during the seventh. After “God Bless America,” the Yankees were due up, the grounds crew was cleaning and the camera was panning around the stadium. Now, in all sports, between the game parts of the game, there’s a lot of nonsense — loud music, promotions, dancing children, emcees — and there was some in the Bronx on Tuesday. A dozen or more people raking the dirt, cleaning up the white lines, applying extra SpeedyDry, and here was Lee, out on the mound, going through his wind-up, playing with a bag, almost hitting a crewman’s head on his extension. He waited on the mound, doing work to get back to work A.S.A.P., while the rest of the gang was taking it in.

I’m no seer, I don’t gamble on sports and I can’t predict a game. But that warmup was a pretty sight, enough to convince me that the hot hand would be staying hot for another night.

    Footnotes

  1. xcoochx: b33f
  2. Or just click here.
  3. No pedo.
  4. Scroll down a bit, they go hard.
  5. Lee pitched and won the only game I saw at the original Yankee Stadium, a.k.a. The Toilet, a.k.a. The Connecticut DMV, and we got out of there by about 9:15, but in the interests of full disclosure, I was a lot more interested in the androgynous freak with the ponytail and Babe Ruth shirt eating nachos near us than I was the game.
  6. Just don't ride them HORSIES.