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For Tampa Bay Rays fans, a 'what if' World Series Game 1

SAN FRANCISCO — First came the crack of the bat. And then, I imagine, the whack of the remote control hitting your wall.

Which moment, I wonder, finally drove you over the edge? The second baseman's third consecutive double? Or Aubrey Huff driving in Pat Burrell with a single? Was it when Texas gave away the lead, or when a rout became a possibility?

Because there had to be some point during Wednesday night's Game 1 of the World Series when the sight of Cliff Lee getting the invincibility beat out of him made you recall what he had done to the Rays in the American League division series earlier this month.

If you thought it couldn't get any worse than Lee destroying Tampa Bay's bats in Game 5 on Oct. 12, then you have no idea how cruel baseball can be. For it is one thing to accept you were beaten by a pitcher on his way to history, and it's another to realize your fate may not have been preordained, after all.

This was Cliff Lee?

The guy who was being compared to Orel Hershiser in 1988? To Bob Gibson in '67? To Christy Mathewson in '05?

This was the same Cliff Lee who struck out 21 and didn't give up a walk against the Rays?

"This was probably to be expected. You can't expect him to be as good as he has been in all of his other starts," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "He's been so consistent, I think everybody has a tendency to think every time he goes out there he'll be the same pitcher. Everybody is going to have problems at some point."

Oh, there were problems.

There was a team that was 17th in the majors in runs scored, knocking Lee all around AT&T Park. Lee was leaving pitches up in the strike zone. He was failing to stay ahead in the count. He was pitching like he never had before in a postseason start.

"I wasn't locating very well the whole night," Lee said. "Missing with fastballs, missing with cutters, the changeup wasn't really there. It's just one of those nights where I was trying to find it the whole time. They made me work a lot."

As opposed to the Rays, who made Lee look as if he might never lose again.

If you are seeking a reason why Tampa Bay did not play deeper into October, Lee is the answer. Tampa Bay won two of the three games against the Rangers when Lee wasn't pitching. And the Rays were humiliated in the two games he was on the mound.

"More than anything, it goes to show you great pitchers sometimes are just a little bit off," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

When he began the day, people were talking about Lee being one of the greatest postseason pitchers in the history of the game. And by the time the moon had risen above this bay area, the world was wondering if the Series would last long enough for him to pitch again.

That is how important it was to beat Lee in Game 1. As strong as the Texas lineup is, and as impressive as tonight's pitcher C.J. Wilson can be, Lee was considered a difference-maker.

It was not an exaggeration to say there had never been anyone quite like him in the postseason.

There were a couple of pitchers (Hershiser and Orlando Hernandez) who began their postseason careers with seven consecutive victories. And there were a couple of Hall of Famers (Mathewson and Sandy Koufax) who had lower ERAs with a minimum of five starts. And there was one pitcher (Schoolboy Rowe) with a similar walk-to-strikeout ratio.

But no one had come close to combining it all on one resume.

Lee came into the game with a 7-0 record and a 1.26 ERA in the postseason. By the time he walked off the mound in the fifth inning, he was on his way to a 7-1 record and his ERA was about to rise to 1.96.

It had been nine days since Lee's last start against the Yankees in the ALCS, but he said that was not a factor.

"That's an excuse, and I'm not going to sit here and make excuses," Lee said. "The bottom line is I didn't work ahead in the count effectively. They got into aggressive counts, and they made me pay for it. That's not acceptable for me."

The turnaround was as dramatic as it was shocking. In 16 innings against Lee, the Rays had a grand total of three extra-base hits. Giants second baseman Freddy Sanchez did that all by himself in his first three at-bats.

The Rays had fallen behind the Rangers early in both of Lee's starts, and he made those leads seem insurmountable by the third or fourth inning. Yet Wednesday, with a 2-0 lead after two innings, he choked it up in the third.

This is a guy Rangers manager Ron Washington had called a thoroughbred. A guy the Yankees are expected to chase when free agency begins next month. An artist who controls the strike zone.

That was the guy who kept the Rays from any chance at reaching the World Series.

And then when the Series began Wednesday night, he disappointed the Rays all over again.

For Tampa Bay Rays fans, a 'what if' World Series Game 1 10/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 12:48am]
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