"It's June," Lee said, again wearing a bemused expression to go with his T-shirt and jeans. "It's still a long ways away from the playoffs."
The only person not impressed with Cliff Lee last night might have been Cliff Lee himself. For nine innings, he dominated a Boston team that is supposed to offer the major league-leading Phillies their stiffest challenge yet. By the time Marco Scutaro led off the sixth inning with Boston's first hit of the night, Lee already had an RBI of his own to go with the two-run homer that rookie Domonic Brown smacked in the second. He tried to pick nits, pointing out the two walks he allowed and the several defensive gems that helped preserve the fifth-longest scoreless-innings streak in Phillies history. But even when you consider Jimmy Rollins' deft fielding and Ryan Howard's line-drive snags, Lee was still the most dominant man in the house on a muggy late-June night.
Of the 112 pitches he threw, 71 were strikes, as he pounded the zone with his fastball and cutter and showed impressive control of his curveball and changeup.
"In the bullpen, he was great," catcher Carlos Ruiz said. "Good location. Everything was down. His changeup was real good."
A Boston team that is among the most patient in the major leagues clearly felt a need to establish something early, swinging at three of the first five pitches Lee threw. But all three of those swings resulted in outs, setting the stage for yet another complete game. Just over 2 hours later, Lee put the finishing touches on his third consecutive complete game shutout, the first Phillie to record such a streak since Robin Roberts did it in July 1950.
In five starts this month, he has allowed exactly one earned run in 42 innings, lowering his ERA from 3.94 to 2.66 in the process.
"He spoiled us out there," said Brown, who was hitless in his previous 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position before hitting his fourth home run of the season. "Actually, a ball [Mike] Cameron hit, I was almost asleep."
The postseason might be a long way off, but for at least one night the Phillies eased some of their manager's nerves about their offensive play, scoring five runs off Boston ace Josh Beckett, two on a home run by Shane Victorino in the sixth inning.
The bigger test might come tomorrow, when a lineup still searching for a powerful right-handed bat squares off against Red Sox lefty Jon Lester. First, though, the Phillies will square off against struggling righthander John Lackey, who faces rookie Vance Worley tonight.
Since the first week of the season, when Boston stumbled to an 0-6 start, no two teams in baseball have been hotter than these, leading many to bill this three-game interleague series as a potential preview of the World Series. Still, as Lee noted, October is 3 months away. The Phillies are without starter Roy Oswalt, as well as the three relievers who were supposed to anchor their bullpen. The Red Sox are without leftfielder Carl Crawford, who had just started to heat up when he strained a hamstring.
From the trade deadline to the disabled list to the continued development of Brown, who added a double to his home run while raising his average to .220, the Phillies hope to boast a vastly improved lineup and bullpen by the time the postseason rolls around.
But as long as Lee (9-5) continues to match Cole Hamels (9-4) and Roy Halladay (10-3) on an 18-plus-win pace, Charlie Manuel isn't going to find many managers who wouldn't switch teams.
"When he comes in from the bullpen, he's ready to go," Manuel said. "He's up. He's ready to go. He's ready to compete and he's ready to win the game."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at