Ex-Phils Thome, Lee hope to keep playing on
The two American League Division Series begin today with a flavor of former Phillies.
A rejuvenated Jim Thome leads the Minnesota Twins against the New York Yankees in Minneapolis and Cliff Lee returns to the playoff stage once again as the Game 1 starter for the Texas Rangers against Tampa Bay.
Thome, 40, had hoped to play for the Chicago White Sox this season and finish up his career in his home state of Illinois.
Instead, the White Sox decided to go in another direction at designated hitter, so Thome wound up taking a cut-rate deal with the Twins to chase a World Series title and show everyone he still had plenty of pop in that big lefthanded swing.
The Twins initially planned to use him primarily as a pinch-hitter late in close games, but an injury to Justin Morneau increased his role in a hurry. He turned 40 in August and enters the postseason with a team-leading 25 home runs in just 276 at-bats.
He has spent a memorable season climbing up the career home run chart, passing Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson to move into eighth place with 589 homers whilee helping the Twins win their sixth division title of the decade.
"This season has definitely rejuvenated me, sure," Thome said. "It makes you think, you keep putting the work in and maybe you'll be rewarded. You do it together. That's the main thing."
When the Twins clinched the AL Central title, Thome was the biggest kid in the room, dumping buckets of beer and water on his teammates.
"The expectations, I didn't have any," Thome said. "I just wanted to be a part of this club and get an opportunity to win. It's worked out great and hopefully we can continue to take it a little further."
In St. Petersburg, Fla., Lee takes the mound 1 year after his remarkable postseason run for the Phillies against a Rays team that beat him three times during the regular season, twice when Lee was with Seattle.
"Cliff Lee's one of the top five pitchers in all of baseball. He's done it at this time of the year as well as anybody possibly could," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's their anchor. They've got that rolling, but I like our first-game guy a lot, too.
"He may not have as much experience as Cliff has had at this point, but I think he's right there with him in regards to his stuff and pitch ability right now. Cliff Lee's had that experience, but we've got kind of a special guy, too."
David Price, in his first full season in the majors, set club records for wins and ERA (2.73) and became the first Tampa Bay pitcher to start an All-Star Game.
"He's had a great season," said the Rangers' Michael Young, who is making his first playoff appearance after playing 1,508 regular-season games. St. Louis outfielder Randy Winn (1,717 games) is the only active player to appear in more games without reaching the postseason. "I think since we know everyone we're facing is going to be good, we just have to look at ourselves."
Lee said he's not feeling any extra pressure because Texas acquired him with the postseason in mind.
"I expect as much out of myself as anyone expects out of me. You can call it pressure, call it what you want. But I'm not nervous or worried or any of those kind of words that would go along with pressure," Lee said.
"I'm more confident and excited and anxious," he added. "So, I'm looking forward to it, and it's going to be a challenge and a lot of fun."