For about six weeks this summer, Roy Halladay was the talk of the baseball universe. The workhorse ace was put on the trading block, and the Phillies soon emerged as the perfect trading partner for the Blue Jays. Talks stalled and the deal never happened. The Phillies, it seemed, missed out on a golden opportunity to solidify their status as National League favorites. But, the Phillies and rookie G.M. Ruben Amaro had a backup plan. In a whirlwind deal that was completed in just a few days, the Phillies landed Cliff Lee. They did not part with any prized prospects and had a Cy Young winner to show for it. It turned out to be a spectacular move as Lee has been the rock of the Phillies rotation this postseason.
Cliff Lee takes a workmanlike approach to the game. He sprints on and off the field between innings. This simple gesture is rare and almost nonexistent for pitchers in baseball. They are told to walk to the mound in order to save their energy. But Lee runs. He’s just one of the guys, hustling onto the field—a lost art in today’s game (watch Manny Ramirez in between innings and it will take a commercial break for the star to reach left field). It’s a little thing like this that can make a big impact. The intensity is set and stays at that level every inning. When the pitcher is locked in, the defense is locked in too. They are excited to be playing behind a great teammate.
Lee will call no attention to this though. It’s just part of the game to him. The quiet lefty has parlayed his throwback style into total domination in the playoffs. His most recent gem: 8 innings pitched, 3 hits, no runs, no walks, and 10 strikeouts in blasting the Dodgers 11-0. That performance pushed his playoff stats to: a 2-0 record with a .74 ERA. He has been unhittable this October.
It wasn’t always this easy. Baseball is a humbling sport that can never be perfected. This is his first trip to the playoffs, but not the first opportunity he had. He missed out on the bright lights two years ago when he was left off of the Indians playoff roster. He spent time in the minor leagues after amassing a 6.29 ERA. It’s about as low as you can get. For 162 games, the team plays with one goal in mind: the playoffs. To miss that chance is devastating for a competitor like Lee. What did Lee do? He set out to prove everyone wrong.
A year removed from hitting rock bottom, Cliff Lee was becoming a household name. With a chip on his shoulder, Lee was focused on proving himself again. Soon, it was apparent he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was dazzling American League lineups for a last place team. When it was done, he owned a 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA. He also went home with the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. Then came 2009. The Indians remained a disappointing basement dweller, and began to explore trade options to build for the future. The Phillies called and just like that, Lee was on his way to the City of Brotherly Love. He was now part of the defending world champions.
Lee brought his blue-collar style to a blue-collar city, and the fans loved him from the start. He puts the team first, going deep into games to save the bullpen. His quick pace keeps the game moving. He pounds the strike zone with his precise control. It’s a style that has the Phillies confident that they will return to the World Series. Lee will no doubt lead the Phils in the charge.
He’ll keep hustling on and off the field, setting the tone for the World Champs on their quest to repeat. This small detail exudes a certain respect for the game and for his teammates. With that level of respect and pride, Cliff Lee will never have to worry about being left out of October again. This year, the lefty has owned October, but he’ll never say it.
Other thoughts on the Phillies postseason:
-The Phillies seem to be a team of destiny this season. The comeback win in the ninth against the Rockies and then in Game 4 against the Dodgers has this team riding high with confidence. They are never down and out with the potent lineup they possess.
-The Dodgers led 4-3 entering the ninth inning. For the Phillies, it was not time to panic. They had done this before. It didn’t matter that Jonathan Broxton was on the mound throwing 99 MPH heat. The Phillies knew they had a chance. After a Matt Stairs and Carlos Ruiz reached on a walk and a hit by pitch, Greg Dobbs popped up weakly to third. The Phillies were down to their final out. Jimmy Rollins stepped to the plate. On the third pitch of the at bat, Rollins drilled Broxton’s fastball into the right center gap, and just like that, the game was over. The Phillies late inning magic continued and they took a commanding 3-1 series lead. Cole Hamels can put an exclamation point on the series with a win Wednesday. If last year’s Mr. October can find his form, the Phillies will be a dangerous force waiting for the American League in the World Series.
-Ryan Howard has been at the heart of the offensive explosion for Philadelphia. The slugger has come through in the clutch time and time again this postseason. He has driven in a ridiculous 14 runs this postseason. He has an RBI in seven straight games, tying a playoff record set by Lou Gehrig in 1932. On top of all that he has a batting average of .379 and has scored 7 runs. Howard has been simply awesome this October, posing a huge threat in the middle of an already incredible lineup.
-Carlos Ruiz has also been impressive for the Phillies. The catcher has thrown out baserunners and handled the pitching staff nicely. The added bonus: “Chooch” has come through with the bat too. When the role players like Ruiz are just as dangerous as the stars, you know a team is special.
-The mantra of “Beat L.A.” has reached the diamond. Originally used in the 1980s to express hatred for the Los Angeles Lakers, it has spilled into the baseball bleachers. Coined by the Boston Celtics faithful, Sixers fans also adopted the phrase, as they would develop a heated rivalry with Magic’s Showtime. The chants have rained down from the Philly faithful throughout the series creating an electric atmosphere. Instead of Dr. J, it’s J-Roll and Co. dancing to the catchy beat.