Sam Donnellon: Phillies' Lee continues to show he's in a league of his own

Posted: August 20, 2009

SO HERE'S A THOUGHT as Cliff Lee suffocated another National League lineup last night:

What if Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine spent their careers in the American League rather than the National League?

What if Smoltz wasn't traded by Detroit when he was only 21? What if Maddux accepted a more generous offer from the Yankees when he was a free agent and did not wind up in Atlanta?

Would all three be no-doubt Hall of Famers, as they are now?

Or would the designated-hitter rule - and the bigger American League payrolls that came in its wake - erode even slightly the statistics that have made all three locks?

Pedro Martinez, another one headed to Cooperstown, wasn't sure it would matter. It didn't when he left the Expos to pitch for the Red Sox in the talent-rich American League East.

"Because you're dealing with big-league players," he said. "You have to stay focused the whole time. For pitchers, it's the same thought out there, the same principles. You might pitch a great game today and the next one you give up five. You have to stay consistent."

Like the rest of us, Martinez is marveling at the run Lee is on right now. Unlike the rest of us, he understands it much better, too. He won a Cy Young Award pitching for Montreal, then won two for the Red Sox in the American League.

His stuff translated into universal dominance, regardless of whether the pitcher hit or not, regardless of whether the lineup was making $100 million or $20 million. He forced awkward swings and punched out batters at opportune times, the way Lee did last night, the way he has since coming to the Phillies.

Lee doesn't have the lethal fastball of Martinez' youth, and despite last night's 11 strikeouts, his game is often more subtle. "Unless I've got a guy on third base with less than two outs, I'm really not trying to strike anybody out," he said after pitching a two-hitter last night in the Phillies' 8-1 victory over the Diamondbacks.

"I'd rather them swing at the first pitch and get out that way."

What he shares with Martinez is the economy by which he worked in his prime, when he, too, could churn through nine innings in less than 2 1/2 hours, which Lee did again last night.

For Lee, the essence is the strike, not the strikeout. "He has three pitches and he pitches to both sides of the plate," manager Charlie Manuel marveled. It's what made Maddux special for an entire career, Glavine special for most of his, too.

Said Manuel, "You can't really guess pitches when he's on like that."

Lee threw 106 pitches last night. An incredible 81 of them were strikes. Those are numbers that translate well in either league, which is why he was 22-3 with the Indians last season, before their offense went south and their front office shaved down the payroll.

Last night's victory put him at 16-2 in 26 career starts against National League teams, a total of 174 1/3 innings pitched. It was also his fifth complete game of the season, his second in a Phillies uniform.

He has won his last seven starts, a span of 58 innings in which he has allowed only seven earned runs - across two leagues. Last night's lone run was unearned.

So maybe Maddux and Co. would be heading to Cooperstown regardless of the league or uniform.

Pedro is.

"If you ask me if one was tougher, I can't really tell you," said Martinez, and then pointed to his head.

"You have to stay in it, right here, consistently."

Tunnel vision?

"Yeah, tunnel vision," he said.

Someone asked Lee about last year, about the 22-3, about a season in which he dominated batters for months the way he is now. Lee was not interested in discussing any parallels.

"Last year is over," he said. "My job is to prepare for the next one. I don't really sit there and say, well my last four or five I did this, this and this. I keep things pretty simple. Every day is different. As soon as you start thinking about last year, bad things are going to happen. For me, being successful is due to my routine and what I do each day to prepare for the next."

Tunnel vision?

Yeah, tunnel vision.

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