NEW YORK - Cliff Lee is the coolest man in baseball.
There he was, pitching in the first World Series game of his life, and the first ever at the new Yankee Stadium. Derek Jeter, a future Hall of Famer who has played nearly a full season's worth of October games, slapped a base hit up the middle in the bottom of the sixth, the Phillies ahead by two runs. Fifty thousand New York fans leaned forward, eager for the Yankees rally that was sure to follow.
How many times had it started this way, with Jeter finding his way on base and his teammates taking some poor pitcher apart?
So here was Johnny Damon, as capable of tying the game with a home run as hitting behind Jeter and getting the rally going. Ball one. Ball two. A hitter's count. Damon fouled off a pitch, took a called strike. Another foul, then another.
Lee, working fast as always, fired the 2-2 pitch and Damon swung. The ball ticked off the handle of the bat and arced back toward Lee, a little pop-up.
And Cliff Lee, the coolest man in baseball, held his glove waist-high and let the ball drop into it. He caught it as casually as if he were getting a new baseball from the plate umpire, then cracked his gum for punctuation.
"I caught it, he was out," Lee said with a grin. "To be successful at this level, you've got to be confident. You've got to go out there and believe you're going to get everybody out. I try not to go over the edge and rub things in and be cocky."
Oh, and then he got Mark Teixeira and his $180 million bat to ground out weakly to second base. End of another inning, easy as you please.
The Phillies won Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, beating the mighty Yankees' hefty lefty ace and seizing homefield advantage. And they were able to do it because Lee pitched the toughest lineup in Major League Baseball like he was working a B game in spring training.
"One thing is, he can't pitch everyday," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Lee has been superb throughout the Phillies' postseason run so far, but this is the World Series. You never know how someone will react to the brighter lights and thinner air until the game is on.
"It's the same game I've been playing my whole life," Lee said. "This is the stage I've wanted to be on since I was a kid. I've already put all the work in. There's no sense in being nervous."
The coolest man in baseball delivered precisely the big-game performance the Phillies had to have in order to beat Yankees ace CC Sabathia. The two lefthanders were teammates in Cleveland, Cy Young Award winners who were traded away before reaching free agency. They are good friends. On Opening Day, they faced each other in the very first game at this ballpark. Afterward, Lee went to Sabathia's house for a postgame meal.
He ate Sabathia's dinner again last night. Lee struck out Jeter and Teixeira in the first inning. He struck out Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui in the second. He not only struck out the side in the fourth, but he got the very heart of the order - Teixeira, Rodriguez, Jorge Posada - and he got them all swinging.
Lee struck out Rodriguez three times - as many times as he struck out in the entire AL Championship Series.
And Lee was pitching, for most of the game, with little margin for error. One mistake, one good swing, could have given the Yankees the lead or tied the game. Until the ninth inning, when the Phillies' lead had ballooned to 6-0, the Yankees never had two baserunners in the same inning. Their prodigious offense was utterly smothered.
Before Jeter scored on Jimmy Rollins' throwing error in the ninth, Lee had pitched 16 consecutive scoreless innings.
It was dazzling work. Legendary baseball writer Roger Angell was moved to exclaim that, with his high leg kick, Lee reminded him of Dizzy Dean.
It is lost to history whether Dean could do what Lee did in the bottom of the eighth. Robinson Cano led off and hit a sharp grounder back at the mound. Well into his follow-through, Lee stuck his glove out behind him and caught the ball on one hop without the benefit of seeing it.
Then he flipped it over to first base for the out.
At shortstop, Rollins just laughed. Even Lee cracked a smile along with his gum at that one.
"I don't know how I caught that ball," Lee said.
The Phillies are now three wins from repeating as World Series champions. Lee won't be able to get them all for them, but it's more clear every night that the Phillies wouldn't be here without him.