By Sean McAdam
SAN FRANCISCO -- The 2010 World Series was two innings old and the Texas Rangers had a 2-0 lead and Cliff Lee on the mound.
If there's a better recipe, a surer formula for a postseason victory, it wasn't apparent at the time.
But there are no sure things in baseball, and certainly not during October baseball. Things change. Stuff happens.
Even if you're Lee and you have toyed with some of the game's best lineups the last two postseasons. Even if the mere thought of Lee was like a security blanket for the Rangers.
But a strange thing happened to the game's best postseason pitcher Wednesday night. Lee spit back the 2-0 lead in the third, then was rocked for six runs in the fifth. He was pulled before he could get out of the inning, and the Rangers went on to lose Game One, 11-7.
It didn't exactly match the earthquake in 1989 for seismic effect, but you could almost feel the tremors, sense the Rangers' world being rocked.
Cliff Lee was human after all.
"He's been so consistent,'' drawled Texas president Nolan Ryan, "that I think everybody has a tendency to just think that when he goes out there, it's going to be the same. Everybody's going to have problems at some point in time. His command wasn't that bad; he just wasn't as sharp as he's normally been.''
This is all Lee's fault, of course. Not Wednesday night, but the impossibly high standard he had set for himself previously. His numbers were otherwordly, his composure unflappable.
Against the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, he had made it look easy. Wednesday night was a sharp reminder that this business of turning back the game's best hitters on the game's biggest stage is, most assuredly, not easy.
"Obviously, he wasn't locating as well as he used to,'' said catcher Bengie Molina. "It happens. He wasn't as sharp. We're human.''
In Lee's case, that had been a well-kept secret this month and last October, too.
Wednesday, after all, represented Lee's first postseason loss ever. In each of his first three postseason starts this month, Lee had reached double figures in strikeouts and allowed a grand total of two runs.
The Giants matched that in the third inning alone. And then their fun really started.
As Lee's pitch count soared, the Giants were uncommonly patient. Known for their aggressiveness, they worked counts, wasted pitches and refused to cower.
This wasn't the Lee they had heard about.
"Guys were able to step up and have good at-bats,'' said former Red Sox infielder Freddy Sanchez, "and tried to work the pitch count and put the ball in play.''
And the hits weren't cheap. Sanchez lashed a double to left to score the first run. Andres Torres and Sanchez (again) doubled in the fifth. Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff served solid line drives into center as the inning wore on and Lee unraveled.
The same guy who last week looked as though he could carve the plate up with the precision of a surgeon, was suddenly offering a steady diet of inviting meatballs. The Giants may not have the most fearsome lineup, but they didn't need an invitation to whack what Lee was offering them.
"I threw a ton of pitches,'' recounted Lee, "and I threw a lot of pitches over the heart of the plate. You can't do that at this level. I made some good pitches, too. But for the most part, I was erratic and trying to find it. And for whatever reason, I couldn't be consistent locating pitches.''
Perhaps such a stumble was inevitable. Nobody could maintain that level of dominance forever.
The danger for the Rangers, of course, is that he'd had been so good in these instances that a loss by Lee could be devastating to their confidence. If we can't beat them with Lee, they might be asking themselves, how are we going to beat them?
"I don't think so,'' said Ryan, shooting down that theory. "We went out and scored seven runs and made, what, four errors? It's not too often that you make four errors and win a ballgame.''
Then again, it's not too often that your unbeatable, nearly unhittable pitcher is chased in the fifth inning. It's not often that Lee allows five doubles in a single start (he hadn't since joining the Rangers).
But things change. Stuff happens.