By Sean McAdam
NEW YORK -- Already, just halfway throgh the playoff calendar, the 2010 postseason has become, like the regular season which preceded it, dominated by pitching.
There was a no-hitter by Roy Halladay and a dynamic playoff debut by Tim Lincecum a day later.
But great as those performances were, they were merely the opening act for the 2010 postseason headliner. Cliff Lee isn't competing with them; he's up against history.
Rare is the modern athlete who manages to somehow top expectations in an era of 247 hyperbole, but Lee cleared that bar with ease in Game Three of the ALCS with his eight shutout innings, 13 strikeouts and only one walk.
Box score Play by play
The best this season? Wrong question.
"He's the most consistent pitcher I've ever seen,'' marveled Texas club president Nolan Ryan after his Rangers shut out the New York Yankees 8-0. "He's walked, what, one guy in 24 innings? He's unbelievable.''
Asked if Lee's performance the last two postseasons put him in the conversation with all-time October greats like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, Ryan didn't hesitate.
"I think very much so,'' said Ryan. "He's as consistent as anyone who's ever pitched postseason. It's a carryover from last year and he's doing it again this year. I don't know anybody you really can compare him to as far as his command and the kind of games he's consistently pitched.''
You'll get no argument from the Yankees, who managed to get four balls out of the infield -- two flyouts and two singles -- in eight innings. It got to the point that Yankee fans were standing up and applauding Nick Swisher for pushing an at-bat against Lee to 10 pitches. Of course, Swisher swung and missed at the 11th pitch.
Talk about small victories.
In three playoff starts this month, Lee has now given up two runs in 24 innings while allowing 13 hits. But the key might be his outrageous strikeout-to-walk ratio, which sits at 34-to-1.
"And it's not just that he strikes so many people out and doesn't walk anybody,'' said teammate C.J. Wilson, "but he gets everybody out, too. It's one thing to throw strikes and throw the ball down the middle. But he actually gets outs, too. You put all that together and it's like, wow. It's like he's got turbo boost in a video game.''
Lee has won six straight postseason starts dating back to the NLDS last year, one shy of Gibson's mark, which ran from 1964 to 1968. His 7-0 career postseason record is tied for second-best all-time without a loss. Only Orlando Hernandez -- coincidentally, on hand Monday night at the Stadium -- had more wins (eight) before suffering his first postseason loss. And Lee is the first pitcher in history to post three straight double-figure strikeout games in the same postseason.
Of the 31 games in postseason history in which a pitcher has struck out at least 10 and walked one or fewer, Lee has pitched five of them.
Not just great in the moment. Historically great.
There's a feeling of inevitability when Lee takes the mound in a postseason game, and according to Wilson, you can see it in the eyes of even the best hitters in the game.
"He's got this reputation that when hitters dig in, it looks like they're 0-and-1 already,'' said Wilson. "They're like, 'I just know he's going to throw a first-pitch strike.' Mentally it just puts them behind the eight-ball.''
Because the Rangers now lead 2-to-1 -- and are a one-inning bullpen meltdown in Game One from being on the verge of sweeping the Yankees -- and Lee would pitch a deciding Game Seven Saturday in Texas, there's a feeling that the Yanks actually need to win the next three in a row, to take Lee out of the equation.
There's an aura of invincibility that now surrounds Lee, but the pitcher himself finds such talk embarrassing.
"Just because I had a good game this time and the previous time,'' warned Lee, "doesn't mean it's going to happen again.''
Speaking of inevitability, there's the side matter of Lee's asking price escalating with every strikeout, every shutout inning. Lee might yet pitch the Rangers to the title, and, even with the team's new 3 billion TV deal, he may be too costly to re-sign.
How much will he cost, someone wondered?
"You can go next door and ask them,'' drawled Ryan, tilting his head toward the New York clubhouse with a smile. "I think he's got their attention.''
The Yankees and everyone else's, too.