Cliff Lee’s real name is Clifton, which is just fitting, somehow. It’s fitting that Clifton Phifer Lee pitched the best World Series game in six years, in the same spot as the last truly great one. In 2003, Josh Beckett put Yankees (and, to some degree, Red Sox) fans out of their misery with a nine strikeout, two-walk performance to give the Marlins the title. But for the fact that Lee pitched in Game 1, his game could be considered even better.
Beckett has always been the exemplar of rock-and-fire dominance when he’s on; he is the spiritual successor to fellow Texans Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Kerry Wood, whose superlative career only exists in the mind. Lee is something different. With the best control in baseball, he exerted totally casual dominance over the Yankees last night, making New Yankee Stadium his own and chasing any mystique and aura right out of the place. He could one lazy hit ball with complete nonchalance, not even looking at the glove as it plopped in, and snagged another one behind his back as it threaten to whiz past for what would have likely been another sequel-free Yankees hit. Even he had to laugh at that one.
The only time he wasn’t laughing or going about his business was the ninth inning, when shortstop Jimmy Rollins threw a ball into the stands, resulting in the Yankees’ only run. Lee was obviously miffed for a second, then went right back to chucking. Two pitches later, the camera panned back to Rollins, and now he was laughing, as if Lee was so dominant that the run he gifted them was its own sort of joke. It was that ridiculous to think the Yankees could score.
The Phillies had taken an early lead on a home run by Chase Utley that would have been an out in 29 of 30 professional baseball stadiums; lucky for him, he picked the right week to play in the Bronx. He followed that up with one that would have cleared the right-center field fences in all 30, and by the time Phil Hughes began the Yankees’ reliever death spiral in the eighth inning the result was never in doubt.
Still, it was a joy to watch. The Phillies had tried to acquire Blue Jays starting pitcher Roy Halladay before the trading deadline but had to “settle” for Lee, which is like “settling” for the second-best free steak dinner in the city. (Not that Lee was “free,” but for what they had to give up, close enough). Anyone who’s watched Halladay knows that he’s a grinder, a physical presence that wears down opponents. Lee just drops the hammer and goes. His delibery is the most consistent in the game today, and the results tell the story.
The best part about this, of course, is that it happened on the Yankees home turf. My only fear is that this Yankees squad draws strength from it. If they somehow lose to Pedro Martinez tonight—and if there’s any Lee hangover, or AJ Burnett pulls one of his Ricky Vaughn routines—they’d be down two games heading to Philadelphia. Normally, that would be good news, but this team has a decidedly 1996 feel about it: I think being against the wall is only going to make them stronger. There’s a long way to go in this series, even if the Phightin’s win tonight. It’s not my “I’ll believe the Yankees are dead when I see it” routine; it’s the “I’ll believe this team is dead when I see it.” There’s too much talent there to thinkt they couldn’t rip off four in a row against anyone. This is, however, a good start.