ST. PETERSBURG — When manager Joe Maddon has said the "sky is the limit" for All-Star left-hander David Price, he's used his counterpart in today's Game 1 of the ALDS, Rangers ace Cliff Lee, as a point of reference.
"(Lee)," Maddon said, "is what the sky looks like."
Lee, 32, one of baseball's best big-game pitchers, was acquired by Texas in July for exactly this situation; to be its postseason ace and workhorse, capable of being the difference in a short, five-game series. Lee was dominant in last year's playoffs, when he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts for the Phillies.
"He's one of the most underrated great pitchers," said TBS baseball analyst John Smoltz, the only pitcher in major-league history to top 200 wins and 150 saves. "Cliff Lee has already shown what he can do against some of the best lineups in baseball like the Yankees (in the 2009 World Series). I have no doubt he'll be a huge part of (the ALDS). If (the Rangers) are to have any success against Tampa Bay, it's because Cliff Lee wins two games in the series."
Said Rangers third baseman Michael Young: "I couldn't think of another guy I'd want to start Game 1 of a playoff series."
Lee might not have a fastball that reaches triple digits, like Price, and says he's not a power pitcher. But what Lee lacks in power, he makes up in precision and persistence.
Case in point: he has just 18 walks in 212 1/3 innings.
"He's not afraid," Young said. "And his command is probably the best in the game." Already boasting an impressive arsenal, including a changeup, cutter, curve and mid 90s fastball, he's aggressive, and efficient, allowing him the unique ability to go deep into games; he boasts seven complete games this season, and has lasted seven or more innings in 20 of his 28 starts, which can really save a bullpen.
"Every pitch he's got he can throw anywhere, anytime at any count," said Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach, who caught Lee in Cleveland. "He expects to throw a shutout every time he goes out. He's got everything you want in a pitcher."
That's why, when Rangers manager Ron Washington found out from general manager Jon Daniels they'd have a chance to get Lee, a "No. 1 guy," he was pumped. The Rangers traded four prospects, including first baseman Justin Smoak, for the 2008 Cy Young winner.
"I was overwhelmed, really," Washington said. "I mean, I felt elated, and I couldn't wait to get out to the clubhouse to let our players know that. And, in doing that, it made them understand how serious we were about making a charge."
Lee said he didn't need to "carry" the Rangers to the AL West title; they were already in first place when he got there. And though Lee didn't pitch as well as he wanted to in the second half, going 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA with the Rangers — partly due to a back injury he said is no longer an issue — he did well in the final few weeks, and relishes a chance at another postseason run.
"I expect as much out of myself as anyone expects out of me," Lee said. "You can call it pressure, call it what you want. But I'm not nervous or worried or any of those kind of words that go along with pressure. I'm more confident and excited and anxious."
The Rays are 3-0 against Lee this season, but All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford admitted, "I think we just had some good luck against him."
In one, Lee threw an eight-inning complete game but lost 2-1, as Matt Garza was better. In another, Lee went into the eighth with a 4-2 lead, but his defense failed him during a four-run rally. In three starts against Tampa Bay this year, Lee has struck out 25 and walked two, but received eight runs of support. The Rays have just hung in, and got to Lee late in games this year, hitting .433 (13-for-30) after the sixth against him.
"You watch those games, he pitched really well against us," Crawford said. "But we somehow found a way to win. I don't know (how). I just hope we can continue to have success against him."