Even an ace is no sure thing in the postseason

Posted: October 03, 2011

Cliff Lee, it turns out, is a human being. Lee is a terrific pitcher, but that's flesh and bone and blood under his powdery baseball cap.

The aura that has grown around Lee and Roy Halladay, around Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, works both ways for the Phillies. They have the best starting rotation in baseball. It is why they were the best team, with the best record, in baseball. It is why they remain favorites to win their second World Series in four years.

That aura can intimidate opponents before a pitch is thrown. But it can have an equally troubling effect on the Phillies - players, coaches, and manager Charlie Manuel.

The Phillies handed Lee a 4-0 lead in Game 2 of this suddenly tense National League division series with the St. Louis Cardinals. The game was in the bag. Ask anyone in the Phillies dugout.

The Phillies offense throttled back, ready to sail to an easy two-games-to-none series lead. It was like a one-game microcosm of the post-clinch cruise control that resulted in that eight-game September losing streak.

But Lee is human, and he looked it as the Cardinals chipped away at that lead. It was 4-3 after the fourth inning, tied after the sixth. Over a period of three innings, the Cardinals went 7 for 15 at the plate, with one walk.

"Any time you give a starting pitcher a four-run lead in the first two innings, he's in a pretty good spot," Lee said. "That's the situation I was in. I somehow squandered it away. They got a ton of hits."

If Vance Worley or any aura-less pitcher had been hit around and blown a four-run lead, Manuel almost certainly would have taken him out of the game.

But Manuel has deferred to his staff of aces all season. He and pitching coach Rich Dubee know and respect these guys. They listen when Halladay says he can finish a game, when Lee says he feels strong. There are 102 regular-season wins to support that approach.

"I never want to come out of the game," Lee said. "No matter what. I want to pitch until the last out's made. That's Charlie's job to decide who comes in and when. I totally respect that."

"He had what? Nine or 10 strikeouts?" Manuel said. "He was throwing pretty good, but they had a lot of runners on base."

So Lee stayed in for the seventh. Allen Craig led off with a triple that centerfielder Shane Victorino catches nine times out of 10.

Lee stayed in. Albert Pujols stroked an RBI single to left.

Lee stayed in. Lance Berkman singled.

The Cardinals had the lead and two men on base when Manuel finally came for Lee. By then, 11 of the previous 16 batters had reached base against him. Lee's game is pounding the strike zone. The patient St. Louis hitters were able to drive enough of those strikes to create rallies.

"They continued to fight," Lee said. "They got some big hits when they needed to. I wasn't able to make the pitches I needed to in the situations I needed to. I take full responsibility."

Brad Lidge came in and ended the rally. Considering that Lidge is used to starting innings, we can only wonder how things might have gone had he started the seventh.

The point isn't really to criticize or second-guess Manuel here. It's just the way it is when you're dealing with a pitcher of Lee's stature. Over the long season, that trust pays dividends. Over a short series, though, it can backfire quickly.

The far bigger problem was the way the offense shut down. The Phillies jumped all over Chris Carpenter, who was pitching for the first time in his career on three days' rest. Their aggressive approach made St. Louis manager Tony La Russa's pitching strategy look doomed to failure. By trying to protect inconsistent Jaime Garcia, La Russa burned an unrested Carpenter and would have put enormous pressure on Garcia for Game 3.

It is hard to imagine the Phillies losing the series in that scenario.

"We wanted to get into their bullpen," Manuel said. "The big problem was that their bullpen held us. What did we get? One hit? Two hits after that?"

Just one. The Cards retired 15 Phillies batters in a row before Jimmy Rollins hit a two-out single in the seventh.

After Rollins inexplicably got himself picked off first, the Phillies were pressing, trying to get that lead back. They couldn't. Now they must beat a lefthander, Garcia, who has given them a tough time in the past. Either that, or they face a pair of possible elimination games. That is the challenge in Game 3.

Fortunately for the Phils, they will run Hamels and his aura out there. When you get down to it, having four aces does a lot more good than harm.

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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