By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
But make no mistake: Cliff Lee is about to make all sorts of history. Mainly, come October he'll pitch Game 1 of an American League playoff series. And, who knows, maybe even Game 1 of the 2010 World Series.
Yessiree, It's Time.
Finally, after a decade of frustration and years of yo-yo rebuilding via a farm system...no, with over-the-hill veterans...actually, no, back to the first plan of developing young players...the Rangers' future is right here, right now. Texas is in first place in the American League West division, just like they were on July 9. But that afternoon, general manager Jon Daniels pulled off a trade that Rangers' fans have been yelling about for, oh, 40 years?
"We need to go out and get some pitching!" went the familiar refrain.
When the Rangers traded for Lee from the Seattle Mariners for a couple of prospects including first baseman Justin Smoak, it legitimized a franchise. It won a division. It—if only for a day—minimized the embarrassment of the Rangers' ownership flux in bankruptcy court.
Lee, a dominant left-hander who won the Cy Young in 2008 and pitched the Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series in 2009, was the best pitcher on the market as the July 31 trading deadline approached. The Rangers nabbed him, immediately placing the transaction up there alongside Nolan Ryan and Alex Rodriguez as the most noteworthy acquisitions in franchise history.
I mean, these are the Rangers. They've been playing baseball in Arlington for 39 seasons. They have exactly one playoff game victory. One. Now, just like that, hand Lee the ball and all of a sudden their Las Vegas odds to win a World Series drop from 8:1 to 4:1.
"He's a top-of-the-line, bona fide ace," said Rangers' Hall of Famer and current TV analyst Tom Grieve. "He's at the peak of his career and right now he's about the best in the business. He's the kind of pitcher who can win you three games in a seven-game playoff series. If you're a Rangers fan this has to be one of the most exciting times in your life."
Lee, who went 22-3 for the Cleveland Indians in '08, has been brilliant in his first five starts heading into his next game Saturday in Oakland against the A's. Not that he has much to show for it. In 43.1 innings, the Rangers' offense has supplied him with eight runs.
"Getting deep in games and giving the team a chance to win, that's a starting pitcher's job," Lee said after a hard-luck, 4-1 loss last Sunday afternoon against the Angels in Anaheim. "All I can do is throw strikes and make the other team swing the bat. I can't control if we score runs or make plays."
Funny that the lanky lefty facially resembles House star Hugh Laurie, because at times he's a surgeon. July 27 at Rangers Ballpark, he was at his detailed, dominating best. In an eventual 3-1 win over the A's, Lee pitched a full nine innings, striking out 13 without a walk. It was the most strikeouts by a Ranger since Aaron Sele in 1999 and the most by a Texas left-hander since Jamie Moyer in 1989.
"He's amazing to watch," said Rangers' veteran third baseman Michael Young. "He's so under control, so in command. He knows exactly what he's doing with every single pitch."
Asked to sum up Lee's first four starts as a Ranger, right fielder Nelson Cruz surmised, "Unbelievable. Can't explain how good he is."
While Neftali Feliz is a thrower, Lee is a pitcher. He throws mainly fastballs, never topping 92 on the radar gun. What he does best is strike one. His control is like that of those freaks who can paint an intricate replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling on the head of a thumbtack. He's future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux with more pop. When he walked an Angel last Sunday, it was the first in 159 batters he's faced pitching for Texas.
"His control is his weapon," says pitching coach Mike Maddux, Greg's brother. "When he's on, no one hits the ball on the fat part of the bat. He's dominating without looking like he's dominating."
A fantastically absurd strikeouts-to-walks ratio for a pitcher would be Roy Halladay's 7-1. After he smoked the A's, Lee's was an unfathomable 14-1.
Almost as impressive has been the interest and enthusiasm kick-started by his arrival. In his first two home starts the Rangers enjoyed combined walk-up crowds of an unheard-of 23,000. And his start against the A's was Fox Sports Southwest's highest-rated Rangers game of the season.
"I'm just here to help this team win," Lee said after baffling Oakland. "The Rangers haven't had a lot of success in the playoffs through the years, so it would be nice to be able to help us get over that hump. This is a really good team. A great offense. I'll just try to throw strikes and give us a chance to win when they hand me the ball."
Daniels, who said the Lee talks with Seattle originated way back on June 11, isn't worried about the pitcher's long-term future. And who could blame him? Lee will be a free agent after the season and the New York Yankees are already salivating over him for the 2011 season. Lee has been traded four times in the last 12 months, and the Rangers likely won't even broach a new contract until after the season.
Let's face it: The Rangers may have given up prospects just to rent Lee for three months. He signs with New York in December and it makes the move look silly. Unless, that is, Lee gets Texas into the playoffs and wins games in October.
Back in spring training out in Arizona, team president (and yours truly) predicted the Rangers would win 92 games and a division championship. The way they're playing isn't a surprise. Their lead in the meekly mediocre West—it was nine games as the calendar flipped to August—is downright shocking.
The Rangers have a Manager of the Year candidate in Ron Washington and a loaded offense led by probable Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton. They have an elite closer in Feliz and the best pitching staff in the history of the organization. Despite bankruptcy—any number of folks could own the team coming out of this week's auction, including Ryan-Chuck Greenberg, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban or Houston businessman Jim Crane—they made four trades in July, acquiring veteran help in the form of Lee, catcher Bengie Molina, first baseman Jorge Cantu and second baseman Cristian Guzman.
"You can't deny the emergence of the Texas Rangers as a major force in the American League," said ESPN analyst Peter Gammons last weekend. "They've got a lot of good, young pieces to the puzzle and now they have a pitcher in Cliff Lee who can win big games or even a big series all by himself."
Not bad for a guy who, 2.91 ERA notwithstanding, is only 1-2 in a Rangers' uniform so far.