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In Praise of Cliff Lee

Back in late July, when the Philadelphia Phillies traded for Cliff Lee, I gave the deal a tepid endorsement. On its surface, for what the Phillies gave up relative to what they got back, the deal was "not bad," I wrote. Lee was bound to help them fill out a decent rotation.

But I lamented the fact the Phillies hadn't gone for the bigger deal -- Toronto's Roy Halladay. I even called Lee a "downgrade" (cringe) and "the lesser of two pitchers" (ouch). My position was this: The Phillies had a comfortable lead in the NL East at the time, so the acquisition of a starter was as much about the postseason as the regular season. Halladay, I thought at the time (and confirmed by talking to a couple of scouts about the deal), was simply a more dominant pitcher -- and dominant starting pitching is what wins in October.

"Who would you rather have on the mound?" I asked on July 29 -- Halladay or Lee?

Well, I'm here today to say I was dead wrong. And to answer the above question, I'd take Lee.

I'm a believer in Cliff Lee, after having seen him throw three, yes, dominant games this postseason -- none better than his eight-inning, no-run, no-walk, three-hit, 10-strikeout gem Sunday night in Game 3 of the NLCS. He is 2-0 with a no-decision. He has a 0.74 ERA. Opposing hitters are going .165/.193/.212. How dominant is that stat line? The average NL pitcher this season hit .138/.179/.176. In other words Lee facing the Rockies' and Dodgers' lineups this postseason has been roughly the equivalent of an average NL pitcher facing the opposing pitcher in every spot of the lineup.

Sunday night's performance was magnificent. And in my gamer, I didn't give it enough credit. I wrote that no Phillies pitcher had ever thrown a postseason game of at least eight innings while striking out at least 10, walking none and allowing three or fewer hits. That was all true, but I shouldn't have limited my search (on the fine "Play Index" at to just the Phillies -- because as it turned out, no pitcher in history on any team has ever done it.

Here are the five pitchers to go 8+ innings with three or fewer baserunners and 10 or more strikeouts in a postseason game:

Nolan Ryan (Astros, 1986 NLCS): 9 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 12 K's
Mike Mussina (Orioles, 1997 ALCS): 8 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 10 K's
Roger Clemens (Yankees, 2000 ALCS): 9 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 15 K's
Josh Beckett (Marlins, 2003 NLCS): 9 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K's
Cliff Lee (Phillies, 2009 NLCS): 8 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 K's

Cliff Lee is giving the Phillies better pitching than Roy Halladay could right now. Lee is the best pitcher in this postseason, period. And I know it's getting ahead of ourselves, but I can't help but relish the thought of a Lee/CC Sabatia matchup in Game 1 of the World Series.

By Dave Sheinin  |  October 19, 2009; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Athletics  
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That would be a fascinating matchup; it's just a pity it would come via a World Series featuring two of the most disliked teams (or, to be more specific, ownerships and/or fan bases) in baseball.

My response to a Phillies/Yankees World Series will be to watch a lot of ice hockey.

Posted by: greggwiggins | October 19, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure why Phillies ownership is being lumped in with the Steinbrenners. It's always been a fan-friendly organization, even back in the Giles years, and now they have a solid, mostly home-grown team -- a formula I wish the Nats would emulate. What's so bad about that? (And don't confuse the Phils' fan base with the Eagles' -- they are several steps higher on the evolutionary scale.)

Posted by: VPaterno | October 19, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Well of course you got it wrong Dave. You write for the Wa Post Sports Page. A paper whose writers know nothing about baseball. Did you know that Cliff Lee won the Cy Young in 2008? Did ya?? Huh?? Mike Wise is the only writer worth anything in the sports section. BTW Chico Harlan is painful to read when it comes to baseball - poor Nats. The Phightins' will win it all and if you remember what they did to CC last year you might change your mind on that Match-up. "The Philadelphia Phillies are 2009 (Harry's ready) World Champions of Baseball!!!"

Posted by: billm32 | October 19, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

For anyone who doesn't know what's wrong with Phillies fans:

Posted by: cassander | October 19, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

The Phightins' will win it all and if you remember what they did to CC last year you might change your mind on that Match-up. "The Philadelphia Phillies are 2009 (Harry's ready) World Champions of Baseball!!!"

If only Harry was still with us. Kalas dead is still a better announcer than John Sterling alive.

Posted by: VPaterno | October 19, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Gotta admit that I'm with Bill on this one.The Post baseball coverage is in my opinion poor at best so it doesn't surprise me that the importance of top level lefthanded pitching would go unappreciated. As to Chico Harlan anyone who read his juvenile reporting of Penn State football during his previous post knows what an incompetent writer he is. Personally I consider him to be the worst beat writer in America and have grown very tired of reading his unattributed quotes and inaccurate representations of comments that are available live on the post game shows.

Posted by: wellscats | October 19, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Ruben Amaro has had a fantastic debut as GM for the Phils. The Cliff Lee deal is one of many great moves. How about signing Pedro Martinez for peanuts when no one else wanted him? He was masterful in game 2 and should have earned another post season victory for his resume. Resigning Moyer - even though he faded down the stretch, he led the staff in wins. And how about singing Ibanez? The first half MVP. And NOT signing Pat "my career is over" Burrell. Amazing what happens to your numbers when you aren't hitting behind Ryan Howard.

A Phils/Yanks series would be awesome for ratings and great for baseball. Two of the best baseball towns in the country going at it. You Nats fans could learn a thing or two and your front office certainly will.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | October 19, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

No, PhilliesPhan, there's nothing I need to learn about the game or how to attend a game from some of the worst-behaved fans ("phans" if you prefer) this side of a convention of soccer hooligans. I could apply that to both teams but even more than the New Yorkers, Philadelphia's fan base -- at least the ones I've seen and dealt with -- are some of the most boorish thugs in sports. As I wrote elsewhere, there's a lot to like about the Phillies ballclub. But so many of Philadelphia's fans are a disgrace to the team and to the city that it's impossible to grant them the respect they would otherwise deserve.

Posted by: greggwiggins | October 19, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Philadelphia is a great baseball town. Only second to New York and Boston. Ask anyone who plays in Philly, even if only for a year. Some of the most passionate baseball fans you will ever see. Period.
Yes - the DC fan base has a lot to learn. Considering you lost your baseball franchise not once, but twice in the past century, and you aren't supporting your current team very well either.
I personally want baseball to succeed in Washington. I hope your owners can get you what you need to compete this off season and I hope the fans start showing up at your NEW ballpark.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | October 20, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I lived in both Philadelphia and New York for nearly a decade apiece, and they are both great baseball towns. Washington will be too, once it's given good product...which it frankly hasn't seen since the early 1930s. You look at attendance figures for Philly, NY and Boston when their teams are lousy (90 losses or more) and they're nothing special. If the Phils, Yanks, Mets or Red Sox were at the Nats' current level, they wouldn't draw either. There are few of us who were around the last time a D.C. baseball team was a consistent contender.

I think the Nats can learn a lot from the Phillies about building a team from within without having a Yanks/Bosox-level budget.

Posted by: VPaterno | October 20, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Only 7 Ks, but this was a pretty fair start for a game 5 in a 2 - 2 World Series.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | October 20, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

V-Pat - the Red Sox have not had a 90 loss season since 1966. But you are right - they did draw less that year than the Nats did this year. Fine research.

In 1992, they had 89 losses and drew 2,468,574 (6th of 14 AL teams). Must have been a lot of front runners.

Per Cots, the Red Sox Openign day payroll was $8m more than the Phillies. I hope the Phillies don't become like the Sox. Then they might have a fan base that actually looks up a fact before bloviating.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | October 20, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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