NEW YORK - Not having paid much attention in 1972, it has always been hard to make sense out of Steve Carlton and the best year a Phillies pitcher ever had. The framework of the discussion is civic boilerplate by now: Carlton had 27 wins for a team that won only 59 games. Just wrapping your head around that kind of accomplishment is tough, and it is tougher still without the day-to-day texture of the experience.
From July 23 to Aug. 13 in that amazing summer, Carlton started six games, completed them all and won them all. He allowed one earned run in 54 innings, which computes to a 0.17 ERA. It is absurd when you think about it.
In the searchable database at Baseball-Reference.com, which dates back to 1954, Carlton's stretch is the only one for the franchise in which a pitcher has won six consecutive starts and allowed one earned run or less in each of the starts.
And now Cliff Lee has five.
His record for the Phillies is 5-0. His ERA since the trade from Cleveland is 0.68. His work yesterday against the Mets - a day when Phils manager Charlie Manuel praised Lee's persistence but said "I've seen him better" - fell somewhere south of perfection and somewhere north of professional: seven innings, two runs (neither earned), six hits, five strikeouts, no walks.
The last Phillies pitcher to win his first five starts was Marty Bystrom, the September call-up in 1980. The similarity ends there, though. Bystrom was a youthful revelation, a joyful surprise. This feels different. Lee seems more like a machine operating at full capacity, like a professional exterminator.
"I expect to go out there every time and get deep into the game and give the team a chance, and that's what I've done and that's what I will continue to expect out of myself," Lee said.
Each game has been a little different for Lee, which has made this run all the more impressive. As catcher Paul Bako said: "He wasn't quite as sharp early, but he got better as the game went along . . .
"I'm sure there have been plenty of guys who have won five straight starts and what-have-you. But, I mean, as many strikes as he throws and as many different weapons as he has, obviously he's hard to beat. He's a competitor and he throws a lot of fastballs, which is refreshing. He's not trying to trick guys - he's going right after them."
It is the strikes that make all the difference - 83 in 113 pitches yesterday.
"He's relentless about pounding the strike zone," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "He's got a lot of weapons, and he understands what he has on a given day and pitches with that."
Lee is on a pace to pitch more innings, throw more pitches and have more 100-pitch games than he ever has - but he just seems to inhale the innings, even at this point in the hot summer. It was a pretty humid day at Citi Field, and Manuel said Lee sweated a lot, but once he managed to get his feet under him, the innings became smoother and smoother as the day wore on.
"He's wiry, he's strong, and his delivery is so clean that he does it without a whole lot of effort," Dubee said. Which means that the numbers - most pitches thrown in baseball so far this year (3,014), for instance - aren't a big deal.
The results on the field have been plain. In the clubhouse, Lee said, it has been just as seamless.
"It's a good group of guys," he said. "It's pretty loose and, obviously, it's easier to to be loose when you're winning the way they are . . . "
" . . . that we are now," Lee said. "For me, it was already an unbelievable team before I got here. That made things easier, just knowing that all I need to do is come in and throw strikes and pitch the way I know I can. I knew things would work out. Yeah, it's been a pretty smooth transition . . . The longer I'm here, I feel like I'm more a part of it and more one of the guys. So it's becoming more and more easy the more time I spend here."
Lee said, "Now I basically feel like I'm one of the guys, part of the team."
He is part of the team. He is inviting all kinds of comparisons. It is easy to forget that Cliff Lee has not yet been with the Phillies for 4 weeks. *
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