By Sean McAdam
NEW YORK -- It would seem impossible to be a bigger postseason focal point than Cliff Lee has become in the last two weeks.
While Saturday's NLCS matchup between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum had some wondering if that constituted the greatest playoff pitching pairing in modern history, Lee seemingly doesn't need a prime opponent to command attention.
In July, before he was dealt from the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers, he was the object of a half-dozen team's affections. Three months later, set to start Game Three of the ALCS Monday night against the New York Yankees, he is again the center of the baseball universe.
Lee will be opposed Monday night by Andy Pettitte, who has only won 19 postseason games, more than anyone in the history of the game. But matched against Lee, Pettitte is relegated to a bit player.
That's because Lee's performance in the postseason has been the stuff of legend the last two years. Pitching for the Phillies, he beat the Yankees in Game One of the 2009 World Series.
Two weeks ago, he opened the Rangers' ALDS against Tampa Bay with a stunning seven-inning outing in which he allowed a single run on five hits while striking out 10 and walking none.
In the decisive Game Five of the ALDS, with the Rangers seeking the first playoff series victory in the franchise's history, Lee was, if anything, even better, tossing a complete-game six-hitter and fanning 11.
In seven career postseason starts, Lee is 6-0 with 1.44 ERA. In six of those seven starts, Lee allowed either a run or no runs at all.
Lee's dominance is such that the Rangers' postseason fate seems inexorably tied to him. Unavailable for the first two games of the ALCS thanks to his start in Game Five of the ALDS, Lee can pitch just twice in this series -- Monday night, and should the series be extended, Game Seven. The thinking around the Rangers is that the club need only figure out how to win two of the other five games.
"There's been talk about Cliff Lee before he even started this series,'' noted Yankee manager Joe Girardi, "and people were talking about Game Three.''
It's as if Lee's scheduled starts are widely seen as de-facto wins for Texas.
That sort of pressure might overwhelm, but not Lee, who appeared relaxed and confident in meeting with the media.
His manager, Ron Washington, worries that too much is expected of him.
"He has good stuff and on any given night, if it's working, he can be successful,'' said Washington. "But he's human . . . I don't think he can do anything about the hype.''
While Lee has exceptional stuff, it's not his stuff which enables him to toy with All-Star lineups. Rather, it's his otherworldly command. In his seven career postseason starts, Lee boasts a 54-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Hitters often find themselves in a no-win proposition. If they take a selective approach against the lefty, they quickly find themselves behind in the count and even more at Lee's mercy than usual. If they're more aggressive, swinging at pitches early in the count, they're doing Lee a favor of another sort, since he seldom offers anything to hit in the heart of the strike zone.
"It's pick your poison with that guy,'' marveled an American League scout recently. "Either way, he's got you.''
That Lee is about to face the Yankees is more than a little ironic. In July, New York GM Brian Cashman was confident he had put together the right package of prospects -- led by highly-touted catcher Jesus Montero -- that he told several associates that Lee was Bronx-bound.
At the 11th hour, however, the Mariners withdrew, either spooked by an injury to another prospect in the deal, or won over by an improved package offered by the Rangers.
Part of Cashman's motivation to land Lee at the deadline, quite apart by the obvious allure of adding a pitcher of Lee's caliber, was the desire to not face him in the postseason.
Now, three wins shy of repeating as American League champions, that's precisely what the Yankees must do Monday night as the ALCS shifts to New York.
Moreover, unless the Yanks can fit those three wins into the next four games, they face the even more unattractive prospect of facing Lee a second time in the series -- this time, in a winner-take-all Game Seven, in Texas.
Adding further intrigue is the game-wide assumption that Lee, who has been with four teams in the last 16 months (Cleveland, Philadelphia, Seattle and Texas), will sign with the Yankees when he becomes eligible for free agency next month.
In an otherwise thin free agent class for starters, Lee is clearly the biggest prize. His postseason success is only further enhancing his market value -- to the degree that's possible.
The Yankees, thwarted in July, are not about to be denied a second time this winter, especially if the pursuit is only about dollars.
But that's for later. Monday night, Lee again has the spotlight. There's a good chance it will remain on him as long as his team remains in the postseason.
"He's Cliff Lee,'' said Washington. "He's that guy that people expect to throw amazing ballgames.''
And anything else, fair or not, will be seen as this postseason's biggest upset.