LOS ANGELES - Sometimes a manager pushes all the right buttons before a game by crafting a starting lineup built for success. Other times, Cliff Lee takes the mound and dictates the tempo at the beginning and dominates until the end.
The Phillies had the best of both worlds on Dodger Stadium on Monday night.
In the first of four game between the first place Dodgers and last place Phillies, Ryne Sandberg’s altered lineup provided some early punch while Lee was on his game from start to finish. Lee hurled eight shutout innings while Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard both blasted long home runs in the Phillies 7-0 win over the Dodgers.
It was a rare, stress-free game for Ryno and Co.
“It had been a while,” Sandberg said with a smile.
After an ordinary first three weeks of the season, with the gut-punch losses edging out the feel-good wins, the Phillies entered Los Angeles with the opportunity to test themselves against one of baseball’s best teams. They should be equipped for the challenge with Lee, A.J. Burnett and Cole Hamels pitching the first three at Chavez Ravine.
“The Dodgers have an unbelievable lineup,” Lee said, after toying with it for eight innings on Monday. “They have a great bullpen and great starting pitching. They have the total package. They have a lot of quality players. It'll definitely be a test for us. It's nice to get the first one.”
Lee got it started with a dazzling performance, when he came one inning short of throwing his second straight complete game. With a somewhat comfortable lead and Lee already 113 pitches in, Sandberg turned to Jeff Manship for the game’s final three outs.
It didn’t take away from Lee’s stellar night and startling work since his first start of the season. Lee had allowed one earned run in his last 17 innings.
Since his ugly Opening Day in Texas - 8 runs on 11 hits in 5 innings - Lee has a 1.20 ERA. Lee has racked up 37 strikeouts while walking just one batter in 30 innings in four starts since that afternoon in Arlington.
“Cliff was outstanding,” Sandberg said. “He just dominated the strike zone. Pitched well inside and out and as he went along mixed in breaking pitches. But he was in total control out there.”
On Monday, Lee held the Dodgers to four hits while striking out 10 and walking zero. He retired 20 straight batters from the end of the second inning until Tim Federowicz's two-out single in the eighth inning.
The double-digit strikeout game was the 30th of Lee's career and 22 in a Phillies uniform. He has recorded double-digit strikeouts in 5 of his last 8 starts against the Dodgers.
Lee’s 19.00 strikeout-to-walk rate leads baseball; he has led all pitchers in the stat in each of the previous two seasons, too. Lee has walked two while striking out 38 in 35 innings.
“That's definitely something I take pride in and focus a lot on, working ahead in the count,” Lee said. “I try to make them earn their way on base. I've made a conscious effort over the past few years to make that a priority. It's going to continue to be that way.”
From the beginning of his second start until he was through with his work on Monday night, Lee’s ERA has dropped from 14.40 to 3.09 in a four-game span. He was also able to pick up a win for the first time in three starts because the offense showed up for him, too.
After seeing his team break out of a four-game funk without an extra-base hit on Sunday in Coors Field, Sandberg put three new names into his lineup and broke up his middle of the order, too.
Freddy Galvis started at third for the slumping Cody Asche, Tony Gwynn Jr. led off in place of Ben Revere and John Mayberry Jr. was in right for Marlon Byrd, who had played every inning of every game in the season’s first three weeks.
But the most interesting change came with Ruiz slotted into the cleanup spot, with Howard moving down to fifth. Howard entered the night hitting .333 with three home runs in his previous seven games while Ruiz was still searching for his first RBI of the season.
Sandberg’s adjustment paid dividends almost immediately, however.
After Gwynn worked a leadoff walk off L.A. lefty Paul Maholm to begin the game and Rollins followed with a bloop single, Ruiz drove both in with a one-out, two-run double to right. Ruiz doubled again in his second at-bat, this time to left.
Ruiz finished the night 3-for-4 with a home run, two doubles and a walk. His two-run home run in the top of the ninth, which put the Phils up by 7-0, iced the victory.
“When you don’t swing the bat good, it’s tough to get RBIs,” Ruiz said of entering the night hitting .204 with nary an RBI. “The last couple of games I didn’t have good at-bats. So I was trying to work on my swing, try to use more of my legs, my back leg, and that’s what I tried to do in the cage early. And finally, in the game, I felt real good and I made good contact.”
Howard, meanwhile, followed up his flirtation with the cycle on Sunday by continuing his power surge on Monday. After Maholm retired the first two batters of the fifth inning, Ruiz worked a walk and Howard followed by sitting on a first-pitch slider and sending it into orbit, Matt Stairs-style.
Howard’s two run blast landed in the yellow bleacher seats just to the right of center field. It was his fifth of the season, fourth in his last eight games and second off a lefthanded pitcher this season.
Howard finished the night 2-for-5. He’s hitting .271 with a .363 OBP and .906 OPS after the season’s first 19 games.
“He’s swinging it well, using the whole field, swinging at strikes,” Sandberg said. “He’s on a good roll.”
The Phillies scored more runs in their first five innings on Monday (five) than they had in Lee’s last three starts combined (four).
“We played a good game in every aspect,” Lee said. “We swung the bats well, we pitched well and we played good defense. If we continue to do that, we're going to win a lot of games.”