One day after Cliff Lee was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers, not the expectant Yankees, Brian Cashman took his son, Teddy, to the circus. A trip to see the clowns, the lions and the trapeze artists had been planned, but it came at an opportune time. After believing the Yankees had snagged Lee and then learning he was going elsewhere, Cashman needed a diversion.
Cashman wanted Lee so desperately that he was willing to trade Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ premier prospect and a player that he thinks will eventually blast 40 homers in the Major Leagues. But the general manager thought Lee would be a season-changing addition, the type of pitcher who could help catapult the Yankees to a second straight championship. Instead, Lee went to the Rangers.
“When he goes out there,” Cashman said in July, “you expect him to win every time.”
The Yankees wanted Lee in their starting rotation three months ago and they will undoubtedly want to sign him when he becomes a free agent next month. But that was the past and that might be the future. During the present, which is the American League Championship Series, the Yankees view Lee as an enemy who is one of the obstacles to them advancing to the World Series.
As the Yankees watched Lee dominate the Tampa Bay Rays, 5-1, on Wednesday night, they saw a confident pitcher who brushed the corners of the strikezone, who threw his curveball more often than usual and who, of course, didn’t walk a batter. Lee is a pitching assassin in the post-season, improving to 6-0 with a 1.44 earned run average in seven starts. That’s insane. That’s why Cashman wanted him.
Because the Rangers had to use Lee in Game 5 of the A.L. Division Series, the Yankees will not have to face him until Game 3 of the A.L.C.S. That is a definite advantage for the Yankees. The longer it takes Lee to pitch, the more time the Yankees will have to grab control of the series. If the Yankees win the first two games, Lee’s impact in Game 3 will be reduced. The start will still be important, but it won’t be as significant if, say, the Rangers were ahead 2-0 in the series or it was tied 1-1.
While Manager Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher didn’t want to discuss the Game 3 starter when Game 1 isn’t until Friday, the Yankees have the ability to prevent Lee’s role from growing. Since Lee would presumably be scheduled to pitch Games 3 and 7, the Yankees can sidestep the second potential meeting by not letting the series go seven games. If Lee starts once in six games, the Yankees should be able to win four of those games.
Lee has multiple connections to the Yankees. As a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, he was 2-0 with a 2.81 earned run average against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. He is close friends with CC Sabathia, who will start Game 1 for the Yankees on Friday. How close? Sabathia advised Lee about a house in Alpine, N.J. where Lee could live if the Yankees obtained him last July. And Lee might soon be a Yankee. None of that mattered to Girardi.
“As far as intrigue, no,” Girardi said. “I know we’re going to face him in this series and he’s as good as it gets.”
Sabathia was rooting for Lee against the Rays and planned to text him to congratulate him. Lee and Sabathia were teammates on the Cleveland Indians and became fast friends, Sabathia said, because both were laid-back and both had the same mindset as pitchers. Once Lee added a two-seam fastball to an already superb repertory of four-seam fastball, cut fastball, changeup and curveball, Sabathia said he became an even nastier pitcher and a pitcher who produced endless groundouts.
One American League talent evaluator said the Yankees, who are normally patient hitters, need to abandon that style against Lee because he throws so many strikes. He said the Yankees should try and be aggressive against Lee and hit pitches that stray out over the plate. Sabathia agreed, saying his advice to the Yankees is to pounce early, too.
“Be ready to hit,” Sabathia said. “He’s going to throw the ball over the plate.”
After this postseason, a postseason in which the Yankees are trying to vanquish Lee and the Rangers, Lee might end up throwing those strikes for them.
“I hope so,” Sabathia said. “We’ll see.”