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Acquiring Cliff Lee is priceless for Philadelphia Phillies in World Series Game 1

NEW YORK — Today, they have to wonder what might have been in Los Angeles.

They're probably wistful in Texas, annoyed in Anaheim and, yes, frustrated in Tampa Bay.

For three months ago, all of those teams were checking their farm systems to figure out how much it would cost to acquire a Cy Young Award winner in the middle of a season. Did it make sense to part with two prospects? Three? Just what was left-hander Cliff Lee worth?

In Philadelphia, you might say he was worth the world.

The Phillies ended up winning the Lee sweepstakes in July and are now one step closer to winning back-to-back World Series titles.

On a chilly and rainy October night, Lee looked as comfortable as a pitcher can in his World Series debut. He gave up six hits and no earned runs in a 6-1 victory against the Yankees Wednesday.

And, just like that, the cost of a trade seems even cheaper than it once did.

"We've had some amazing acquisitions this year that haven't cost our team anything," closer Brad Lidge said. "I don't know how it happened, but I'm not complaining."

It's not that Lee came for free, but the Phillies were able to acquire him without giving up anyone on the major-league roster. Instead, Philadelphia sent four minor-league prospects to the Indians for Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco.

At the time, it was the kind of deal the Rays probably would have been willing to make.

Struggling to keep pace with the Red Sox and the Yankees in the American League East, Tampa Bay reportedly was trying to pry Lee and catcher Victor Martinez loose from Cleveland. Because of their economic limitations, the Rays value prospects far more than most teams, but they apparently thought enough of Lee to dangle some pieces from their farm system to get him.

Three months later, it's easy to see why.

After going 7-4 down the stretch, Lee has been nearly untouchable in October. He has pitched into the eighth inning of four consecutive postseason starts, and the Phillies have won all four games. He is 3-0 with a 0.54 ERA — lowest all-time of any pitcher with a minimum of three postseason starts — and has 30 strikeouts and three walks in 331/3 innings.

"You have a guy who is capable of incredible things, and he's feeling like he has to do better. And that's awesome to watch," Lidge said. "It's hard to do a whole lot better than he is right now. But he's elevating his game even more."

By this time next week, it could contend as the greatest midseason pitching acquisition in history.

Maybe Lee did not win as many games in the second half as Rick Sutcliffe (16-1) did for the Cubs in 1984. Maybe he wasn't as flawless as Doyle Alexander (9-0) was with the Tigers in 1987. Maybe he didn't post an ERA as miniscule as Randy Johnson (1.28) with the Astros in 1998, and maybe he didn't pitch on three days' rest in the final two weeks the way CC Sabathia did for Milwaukee last season.

But Lee's trump card is better than all of them.

Those other pitchers got their teams into the postseason, but none reached the World Series.

And after throwing a July acquisition on the mound in Game 1, the Phillies will come back with an August arrival in Game 2 tonight. If it cost a handful of prospects to acquire Lee, all it cost to get Pedro Martinez was a little cash and a lot of faith.

So the team that won the World Series last season against the Rays begins its title defense with a couple of brand new pitchers.

"The thing about getting to the postseason is it's a grind. And I think sometimes you have to retool because that extra month and those extra hard innings take their toll," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "We're very fortunate that our front office made some tremendous moves, picking up Pedro and, of course, Cliff. I think they were aware we needed to upgrade our pitching a bit, and they went out and got the job done."

And Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro pulled it off without wiping out his farm system. When the Blue Jays set a ridiculously high price for Roy Halladay, the Phillies turned their attention to Lee and Cleveland.

"You know, when we got him, I knew he was good," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "But if you want to know the truth, I didn't know he was as good as he's been. He had all of his pitches going tonight. He had a fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup and he used every one of them and had them all going."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Acquiring Cliff Lee is priceless for Philadelphia Phillies in World Series Game 1 10/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 5:48pm]
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