ARLINGTON, Texas - Cliff Lee could have been no worse.
We should have found out.
It was madness, for the Rangers not to start Lee in Game 4 last night.
Instead, they started a 24-year-old offensive lineman who didn't last past the fourth inning in either of his previous playoff starts, which is exactly what happened last night. Tommy Hunter took the loss in the 4-0 decision that put the Rangers a game from elimination.
Now, Hunter can pitch, make no mistake. Just not lately. Not well.
He missed the first 2 months of the season with a left oblique strain but, when he got healthy, he got hot. He went 8-0 in his first 10 starts.
Then he went 5-4 with a 5.40 ERA in his next 11 starts. He exited six of those starts before he had pitched six innings. He left three of them after recording just nine outs.
That's the Tommy Hunter who started instead of Cliff Lee last night. Instead, Lee goes in Game 5 tonight.
It took Hunter 83 generally lousy pitches to get through four innings. He gave up a two-run homer in the third inning to Aubrey Huff and would have left in a 3-0 hole if Freddy Sanchez could have effectively bunted in the first inning.
Hunter muddled through. He needed relief in the fifth from middle man Alexi Ogando, dominant for five straight outs before he strained his side and left the game and the World Series. His relief, lefty Darren Oliver, gave up an RBI double in the seventh. Darren O'Day gave up a homer to Buster Posey in the eighth.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Madison Bumgarner cruised for the Giants, a legitimate No. 2 starter in an over-rich four-man postseason rotation. His eight scoreless innings gave him a second win in three playoff starts.
"He didn't throw one pitch at the same speed," marveled Rangers manager Ron Washington, whose team managed three hits and six baserunners. "You've just got to tip your hat to that young kid, Bumgarner."
The Rangers had no Bumgarner. They had Hunter, and he was no Cliff Lee.
Washington recognizes that - and the fact that Lee might have pitched much better.
"I certainly hope he'll do better" tonight, Washington said. "Once again, you've got to put some runs on the board."
True. But that's always easier when the ace is on the hill.
So, why not start Lee?
Lee will be a free agent by the weekend, and, probably, never will pitch for Texas again. He's an ace on the open market, just as he planned to be when he negotiated himself out of Philadelphia in December.
So what if he risks injury? What do the Rangers care? They traded Justin Smoak and three Double A prospects to the Mariners to keep Lee from the Yankees, where he very likely could wind up in a few weeks, anyway.
They owed it to themselves and their depleted farm system to start Lee last night.
Lee starts tonight, his Rangers down three games to one. Only five of the 42 teams in this spot in a best-of-seven World Series have come back and won it.
Not only did the Rangers lose Lee as an option for Game 4, they lose him for Game 7, too. That's the piece of the argument that matters. Now, Colby Lewis is the finale starter.
Washington said that had the Rangers lost Game 3 and had fallen into a 3-0 deficit, then Lee might have started Game 4. Lee was willing all along, he said, to start Game 4.
Lee had never done it. Never pitched on 3 days' rest, not once in his seven full seasons.
Well, it was about time.
That's what aces do.
It should be expected of pitchers who pitch for teams owned by that testament to Texas testosterone, Nolan Ryan. The Express pitched on 3 days' rest 178 times - albeit in an era of four-man rotations, sure.
Then again, Ryan also started on 2 days' rest 13 times. He went 8-3 with a 1.87 ERA.
Those were the days, cowpokes.
Oh, well. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered.
Maybe the Rangers still wouldn't have scored against Bumgarner. After all, Lee wouldn't have hit last night.
Maybe, too, on 3 days' rest, Lee would have been worse than he was in Game 1, when he could not locate his flat fastball and gave up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings.
But probably not. He was 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight playoff starts before Wednesday.
If ever Lee was primed, it was last night.
Lee snarled and hissed his way through a pregame press conference, remarkably unlike his usually bland self. Clearly, he believed that the Giants didn't get his best game. Asked to explain his struggles in Game 1, Lee refused. He was philosophical, and evasive, and even a little self-serving.
He was brilliant.
"Sometimes the best go down. Sometimes the worse teams win," Lee said.
He and his team, presumably, would be among the best; the Giants, therefore, worse.
The reason he couldn't throw anything but meatballs in Game 1? Was it the Giants' mound? A mechanical issue, perhaps?
"Regardless of what I say it's going to sound like an excuse, so there's no point really getting into it," he said.
So he said that, and just implied that there was a reason; or, in his parlance, an excuse.
Fine. So, Cliffy, are the Giants' hitters better than he implied when he spoke before the Series?
"I'm just saying their pitching and defense is what got them where they're at," Lee said, effectively repeating the insult by omission. "They're pitchable, but like I say, if you make mistakes and miss over the plate and they're 2-0, 3-1, bad things are going to happen."
Maybe the Giants got wind of that backhanded compliment before they backhanded Hunter last night.
Given his ornery state, Lee would have been nasty in Game 4.
He would have been auditioning for free agency possibly for the last time.
He would have been facing a team he clearly considers inferior.
He would have been pitching at home to even a Series.
Instead, at best, he only will delay the inevitable.
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