The mindset of the professional athlete is different from the mindset of the average human being. To a certain degree, we can relate to their physical ability, to the adrenaline that courses through their veins on the field of play, to the strength and agility they display on a regular basis. We watch their capabilities, and we consider our capabilities, and we marvel and the disparity between the two. Witnessing a performance that shatters the baseline we have established for physical ability is the visceral attraction of sport.
The mind? The mind is something different, something to which we cannot bear witness. At the professional level, it is often the line between greatness and mediocrity, the reason first-rounders go bust and seventh-rounders win Super Bowls. Problem is, you cannot watch it and track it like you can touchdowns and strikeouts. You can only hope to identify the windows that offer a glimpse inside, like the one Reggie Miller provided in the waning seconds at Madison Square Garden, or the one Steve Garvey gave us every postseason, or the one Peyton Manning offers every time he has the ball and needs to score.
Last night, Cliff Lee may have offered us just such a look. With one out in the seventh inning and the Phillies leading the Dodgers 1-0, the veteran lefty unleashed a mighty swing at a 2-0 pitch and sent it sailing into the right field seats at Dodger Stadium. He celebrated it in a manner similar to the one he displayed after homering against the Atlanta Braves in early July, by running around the bases at his trademark speed and accepting a congratulatory pat from Juan Samuel as he rounded third toward home.
But the window was not framed by the strength of his swing, or the pace of his trot. No, Cliff Lee's window appeared right after he touched home, when he stared down at the Phillies bullpen behind the right field fence and started brushing his left hand on top of his right. The laymen, and Pac-Men, call it "making it rain," and the drops Lee was making were imaginary dollar bills flicked in Kyle Kendrick's general direction.
Later, when asked about the gesture, he said it was in reference to a friendly side wager that he apparently had won. He did not, and would not, identify what was at stake. But he did identify the moment in time when he began to bask in his victory.
"Pretty much instantly," Lee said. "Right when I saw it go into the stands I started thinking about him."
Let that sink in. Cliff Lee is a man who has already won a Cy Young, a man who has already signed a contract for $120 million, a man who had just hit his second big league home run after adding six scoreless innings to a streak that would soon grow to 17.
And his first thought?
I beat Kendrick.
After it was over, after Lee had struck out 10 in eight scoreless innings while also hitting a home run that proved to be the game-winner after the Dodgers cut the Phillies lead to 2-1 in the ninth, Charlie Manuel was asked why his veteran lefty is prone to such stretches of dominance.
"It's baseball," Manuel said.
But maybe it is more than that. Maybe it is a mindset. Lee might not be as consistent as Cole Hamels, or as meticulous as Roy Halladay. But when there is something to be won, be it a postseason game or a wager on his total of home runs, he damn sure is going to win it. Statisticians can argue about the merits of clutch until their fingers turn the color of calculator buttons. But maybe it is the linguists who can offer a better case. Because if anything, "clutch" is to narrow a word to describe an athlete like Lee. Clutch suggests a mental skill, a concious ability to summon one's talents in times of need. But maybe the skill is not a skill. Maybe clutch is the frequent result of a constant state of being, the manifestion of a competiveness so fierce that it is beyond one's control. A manifestation that is as likely to reveal itself at a blackjack table as it is on a pitcher's mound.
Look beyond the accolades, beyond the seven wins in 10 postseason starts and the 2.13 ERA.
In his two seasons with the Phillies, Lee has allowed five or more runs in seven regular season starts starts. Only one of those starts has come against a team ranked higher than third in its division. In 2009, his ERA against winning teams was more than a full run lower than his ERA against those with a record below .500. Last year, those numbers were 3.01 and 3.48. This year, heading into last night, they were 2.69 and 3.27.
Maybe last night was a microcosm of Lee's immense talent. He started the game by allowing a single to a rookie (Dee Gordon) and a bunt to a utility man (Jamey Carroll). Then, with runners at the corners and nobody out, he struck out an All-Star right fielder (Andre Ethier) and an MVP candidate (Matt Kemp) before getting Aaron Miles to pop out to finish the frame.
With a runner on second and two out in the sixth, he again retired Kemp, this time on a weak pop fly.
Four of his 10 strikeouts came against the Dodgers' two stars, who went 0-for-6 and did not hit a ball out of the infield.
Maybe that is the reason this Phillies rotation is so special, the reason we have watched four months of baseball without losing the awe. Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt all want to dominate, all want to dazzle, all want to finish 33-0.
Cliff Lee? He wants to do all of the above. And then take your money.