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Lee is last hope for battered Rangers
Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum have been here before, the strike-throwing freak matched up against The Freak. But the circumstances look nothing like their Game 1 war, which at the time was a purist’s portrait.
As the World Series reaches its crossroad in Game 5 tonight, it’s Lincecum who’ll have the psychological advantage. The Giants have three chances to win one game, including the final two opportunities at AT&T Park. As much as the National League champs would like to finish their season tonight, Lincecum’s mission hardly has Lee’s end-of-the-world element.
Not that the great lefthander cares much about pressure. His competitive gene is so pronounced, it actually thrives when this much is at stake.
Anyone who doubts that Lee relishes the responsibility of rescuing the Rangers should remember how he out-pitched David Price in the deciding Game 5 of the AL Division Series.
But the stakes are higher now; unlike the Rays, who dreaded the idea of facing Lee in a nine-inning shootout, the Giants have no fear of the back end of this World Series. In fact, they’ve managed to successfully drain what the Rangers considered a lake of invincibility.
Texas started the Fall Classic as proven Yankee killers, ready to crush a band of National League misfits who just got lucky against the Phillies.
But the Giants earned the Rangers’ respect by destroying them in back to back games at AT&T Park, including the near-miracle of leaving footprints all over Lee. The Rangers still haven’t gotten over the sight of Ron Washington taking the ball from Lee in the fifth inning of Game 1, on his way to the first postseason loss of his career.
Lee takes full blame for the seven runs (six earned) and eight hits he allowed in 4 2/3 innings. He said there were no secondary issues that might’ve caused him to lose command of the strike zone: the mound was fine, the umpiring was consistent, his back, which ached most of August, was healthy.
Instead, Lee said it was a perfect storm of bad luck and bad timing that brought him down. That, and the law of averages which made certain Lee endured the stinker that, sooner or later, was headed his way.
“I was throwing balls over the heart of the plate. I wasn't working ahead in the count as well as I would like,” Lee told reporters before batting practice on Sunday. “You know, I hit a guy on an 0-2 pitch, I walked a guy. Those are the things I don't need to do, especially in the World Series.
“They did a really good job swinging the bat and working the count and getting themselves in good positions to hit. Yeah, that's what happens, especially at this level.”
The Rangers have every reason to believe Lee will be the same pitcher who lived on the corners all summer, walking just 18 batters in 212 1/3 innings.
The Giants are just as resigned to the reality that beating Lee twice — or, at least, taking advantage of a second bout of wildness in the same series — is close to impossible.
Instead, Lee figures to clone the formula Colby Lewis used in winning Game 3: he threw first-pitch strikes to 26 of the 30 batters he faced, including a streak of 11 consecutive batters. Lewis was all about working ahead, working smart, gaining control by staying in good counts: Of the 30 batters he faced, only one Giant was ahead 2-0 or 3-1.
That’s the task that awaits Lee. Although what Lincecum has to do, by contrast, is keep the game close and hope the Giants’ momentum can carry them through the final innings. That’s not impossible, after the way Madison Bumgarner took down Texas’ high-caliber offense in Sunday's 4-0 victory.
Lincecum was no doubt paying attention to the way Bumgarner stayed away from the middle of the strike zone, limiting the Rangers to just three hits in eight innings. Andres Torres’ scouting report on Bumgarner was lean but accurate when he said, “everything he throws moves.”
That’s because Bumgarner throws across his body; the unconventional landing spot on his front leg creates natural drift away from right-handed hitters, wreaking havoc with their timing. Bumgarner was also a machine within the strike zone.
After walking Elvis Andrus on four pitches to start the game, the Giants’ 21-year-old boy-king threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the next 27 batters he faced.
You don’t have to ask if Lee was taking notes on this. He’s got the formula memorized by now, having been on a similar recue mission in the 2009 World Series. With the Phillies trailing the Yankees three games to one, Lee won Game 5, although he allowed five runs in seven innings in a ragged 8-6 victory.
The Rangers need more than that tonight. They need Lee to turn the Giants’ lineup to mist, out-pitch Lincecum and somehow re-write the Series’ core calculus.
Can he? Lee knows his legacy is in play here. He’s a legend, no doubt — a savior, larger than life, larger than October, even.
He knows exactly what’s required: affixing an asterisk on Game 5 that reads Property of Clifton Phifer Lee.
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