IN THE final days of July, everything changed for the Phillies and everybody knew it immediately. The evidence would not be examined until October, until now, but everybody knew what happened the day the Phils acquired Cliff Lee.
They had ridden Cole Hamels to the world championship last year, they had ridden him hard, and this was now going to be different. They knew it from the first night Lee took the mound, a four-hit complete game at San Francisco. They knew, they hoped, that he was going to be a game-changer.
It is why they got him. This was, right here.
"We don't have to rely on one person," Jimmy Rollins was saying last night, after Lee beat he Colorado Rockies by 5-1 in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. "Last year was pretty much rotating around Cole. Joe Blanton did one heck of a job, super job, but he was still new to us and we weren't quite sure what we were going to get from him. But we knew what we were getting from Cole every night.
"Cliff Lee came over here - previous Cy Young Award winner. We faced him so we knew what type of stuff he had. Everything you heard about him was good. He started out on the right foot in San Francisco and it was like, 'Well, here we go. Now we've got somebody to push Cole.' "
And so they begin. Lee is 31 years old. He has been a major league pitcher for eight seasons. He has won a Cy Young Award. But he had never pitched in the postseason until yesterday.
Yesterday: Game 1. Wind howling. Towels waving. Six hits. One run. Complete game. Got a hit himself. Stole a base. Fans chanting "Let's go Lee" in the ninth.
At the end, it all touched him. He is known around the team for being pretty matter-of-fact, but he did allow himself a moment to let it all wash over him.
"It was in the ninth inning, right before I gave up that double in the gap, so I wish I wouldn't have done that," Lee said. "I wanted to give myself a chance to really absorb it and take it all in. Maybe it cost me a run, but we still won so that's the bottom line."
The last time a Phillies pitcher threw a complete game in the postseason, it was in the 1993 World Series. It was the night after the Phils gave up six runs in the eighth inning and lost Game 4 to the Blue Jays, 15-14. The game, played in a Hound of the Baskervilles kind of mist, took an excruciating 4 hours, 14 minutes. The Phillies used six pitchers that night and somewhere in the 700-level at the Vet, a fan walked around with a sign that read, "Will Pitch Middle Relief for Food."
The next day, facing elimination, Phils manager Jim Fregosi was asked if he would leave Game 5 starter Curt Schilling in the game "until his arm fell off." Fregosi laughed and said, "Probably."
That night, Schilling turned in a five-hit shutout, a game in which he threw - deep breath now - 147 pitches. Even if it only turned out to be the bridge to Joe Carter, it remains the best-pitched game in the biggest spot that the Phillies have ever experienced.
This was not that. But it was the kind of tone-setting performance in which Hamels specialized last fall. It was also a very clear message to anyone paying attention, one that Hamels can punctuate this afternoon in Game 2. That is, that this Phillies team - fronted by these two aces - can be better than last year's model, the bullpen notwithstanding.
Pitching with an extra day's rest, Lee built strength like a boulder rolling downhill. He was unhittable through the middle innings. The Rockies' initial plan was to try to get him to throw a lot of pitches, but it never happened until the very end - mostly because he was relentlessly pounding the strike zone.
"We did want to try to make him work a little more," the Rockies' Todd Helton said. "He threw variations of his fastball. He didn't even have to get off that. He pitched like the guy who won the Cy Young last year."
Afterward, Phils pitching coach Rich Dubee did his best to avoid the media but did stop for a minute and repeated something manager Charlie Manuel said, and something to which Helton alluded - that the cut fastball, the cutter, that sneakily moving little pitch that resides in the narrow space between a fastball and a slider, was a real key.
"First of all, I think the extra rest helped him," Dubee said. "Second, he was able to find his cutter in his last bullpen session. His cutter was firm again, it was late, instead of opening up out in front and being very visible for hitters. We talked about different finger pressure and stuff - it might have been a little bit of that. It might have been that he had been throwing more sliders . . . and he kind of got caught in-between. But today, the slider was 86 or 89 miles an hour. He had some good changeups in there and real good command again."
They all talked about it in both clubhouses, this ability Lee has to hit spots precisely when he is on. When it is all going his way, he adds on this quick, insistent tempo - get the ball, get the sign, pitch, repeat - that makes for a punishing rhythm.
This was one of those days. As teammate Raul Ibanez said, "To be honest with you, it just looked like Cliff Lee."
Which means tempo and precision and an even calm. Nobody admitted to noticing one thing different about Lee on the day of his first postseason start - no nerves, no overhypedness, nothing. Rollins laughed that the only thing that seems to bother him is his work as a hitter.
"After a bad swing, [he'll say], 'Man, I can't believe I swung at that pitch up in the zone,' " Rollins said. "I'm like, 'We do it all the time. Cliff. You're a pitcher, dude - just go get 'em out.' And he's like, 'Yeah, but man, I've got to get that down.'
"He's a good athlete. I guess he's almost like a perfectionist."
Somebody used the word unflappable to describe Lee. Somebody said there wasn't much flapping yesterday. Rollins smiled.
"Except for those flags in the wind," he said.
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