ST. PETERSBURG — Tonight's Game 5 is a game the Rangers never expected or wanted to play. But now that they are forced to, they couldn't pick a better pitcher, perhaps in all of baseball, to save their season.
After winning the first two games in the American League division series against the Rays, the Rangers dropped two in a row and have to play a do-or-die game inside Tropicana Field. Momentum is rolling the Rays' way, but the baseball cliche is that momentum is the next game's starting pitcher. For the Rangers, Cliff Lee is the man who can snap the Rays' momentum, cool their bats and push Texas into the AL Championship Series.
"This is exactly where I would want to be, in a situation like this," Lee said.
And it's exactly where the Rangers want him.
"Cliff is made for this moment," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler called him the most competitive person he ever met and the "perfect guy" to be on the mound for the Rangers.
"Cliff is going for us," outfielder David Murphy said, "and because of that, we like our chances."
Tonight's Game 5 is exactly why the Rangers acquired Lee, 32 and in his ninth big-league season, from the Mariners in July. Though he didn't put up remarkable regular-season numbers (12-9, 3.18 ERA), his postseason history is among the best in baseball. Pitching for the Phillies last year, Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the postseason and showed his big-game reputation by winning an elimination game against the Yankees in the World Series — something he will surely carry into tonight, right?
"I barely remember what happened yesterday, much less exactly how the series was last year," Lee said with a laugh.
That's how Lee is: quiet, humble, reserved. His teammates, however, know his resume. They call him a "warrior."
"When I think of a warrior, it sounds like a fighter," Lee said. "I am not really that. I'm a professional athlete. I'm a pitcher. But I'm competitive. I hate to lose. I like to compete. And if that goes under 'warrior,' I guess I'm that."
Whatever you call him, he continued his postseason success in this series, winning Game 1 by giving up only one run and five hits with 10 strikeouts in seven innings.
The Rays, however, are not conceding anything, especially with their own ace (David Price) on the mound.
"We've had some decent success against (Lee)," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Obviously, he has had good postseason success, but at the same time, we're in a good spot."
During the regular season, Lee was 0-3 against the Rays with a 4.56 ERA.
But none of that — the regular season, the 2009 postseason, even Game 1 — will mean much at 8 tonight.
"It's win or go home at this point," Lee said. "This is playoff baseball at its best here."