Lee is earning ace label

Cliff Lee was dominant in Game 3, striking out 10, allowing three hits, no runs in eight innings.
Cliff Lee was dominant in Game 3, striking out 10, allowing three hits, no runs in eight innings.
Posted: October 19, 2009

WHEN THE GAME began, it was colder than it was for the end of Game 5 of last year's World Series, drier than when it started, and nowhere near as important. This was, after all, only the National League Championship Series, and a win or loss did not carry the magnitude of last fall's 3-day epic, did not have anywhere near the plotlines or ramifications.

And yet as you stood there before Game 3 last night, watching the flags flap nervously, there was that feel. Big game, big moment, a night to further define where this year's ride was headed.

"I always felt Game 3 was a pivotal game," Dodgers manager Joe Torre was saying before his team was clobbered, 11-0, by Cliff Lee and the Phillies. "It's a game that sort of gets the momentum on your side . . .

"It just gives you a little jump start, especially for us coming on the road here."

Little of this postseason has mimicked the last postseason for the Phillies. The bullpen is a dice roll, the starting rotation changes by the hours. Joe Blanton, who took a regular turn in the 2008 postseason, will make his first start in Game 4 tonight. Asked who his Game 5 starter would be, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, "Probably Hamels."

"Anything you might do to change that up?" he was asked.

"Don't know," he said. "Like I said, we're thinking about today."

Not much to think about. Because in a postseason of constructive chaos, of deciding upon starting pitchers based on the cold in Colorado, the heat in Los Angeles, or the familiarity of your home park, Cliff Lee is your constant. Good weather, bad weather, first game, fourth game, third game or potential seventh game, he has been every bit the unconscious ace that Cole Hamels was a year ago.

Maybe even more. Lee allowed one earned run in his first start against Colorado, and one earned in the 5-4 Game 4 clincher out there. Dominant as Hamels was last postseason, there was no start of his as ridiculously suffocating as Lee's eight-inning, 10-strikeout effort last night. Typical of his best performances here and in Cleveland, the 31-year-old lefthander worked quickly, pitched ahead against most batters and improved in both command and velocity as the game went on.

One game after Pedro Martinez slowed down the clock with seven shutout innings, Lee sped up bats with his usual array of offspeed stuff, and his typical - at least in this postseason - black-of-the-plate control.

"Make pitches, mix speeds, stay out of the heart of the plate," Lee said. "That's the name of the game as far as pitching goes."

There's one more thing.

The most lethal part of his game perhaps.

"He works so quickly," Torre said, "that sometimes our hitters weren't ready to hit."

Lee's performance was as typical as Martinez' was exceptional. He threw 114 pitches, allowed three hits, did not walk a batter and allowed just one runner to advance past first base. By the seventh inning, Citizens Bank Park felt like a warm summer party, as most of the 45,721 in attendance joined a "You took steroids" chant aimed at Manny Ramirez - then delighted when he whiffed on a 2-2 changeup.

Lee then singled in the eighth inning, which unintentionally cost him his first postseason shutout. After Shane Victorino's three-run homer two batters later, the idea of him throwing even one more pitch seemed stupid - even to Lee.

Chad Durbin pitched a scoreless ninth.

"I should have hit into a doubleplay," Lee joked.

For all the heat Manuel took for removing Martinez after 87 dominant pitches Friday in LA, Torre's decision to start Hiroki Kuroda yesterday went curiously unquestioned. Left off the first-round roster because of a bulging disc that caused pain in his neck, Kuroda earned the start by throwing 49 pitches in the Arizona Fall League against what Torre yesterday called "inexperienced guys."

"They swing at a lot of bad balls," he said.

The Phillies? "You sometimes have to flip a coin whether

they're going to be aggressive that day or very patient that day," said tonight's Dodgers starter, Randy Wolf, their former teammate. "They could really run up pitch counts. They can foul off pitches until they get a mistake and then capitalize on that."

That split personality, though, is often dictated by who is pitching in front of them - and who is pitching behind them. Once that four-run lead was established in the first inning of Game 3, they became a very selective - and lethal - bunch.

"Whenever you have a pitcher that has good tempo and good rhythm you love playing behind him," said Ryan Howard, who knocked in three runs. "Because you're usually not standing out there too long."

When it was over, the flags hung in exhaustion, the way you slump after a big party, after anxiety has morphed into exhilaration. It wasn't World Series Game 5 - there is too much baseball to be played. But a night like this makes such a premise more probable than possible.

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