Still, the number winks out at you: 0. In all of its meaninglessness, it is becoming impossible to ignore.
It is June and Cliff Lee has won zero games. He has started nine games, his earned run average is 2.92, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in the National League (6-to-1), but he is 0-3.
It is not a reflection on him, but on the mediocrity and the inconsistency of the team around him. It is not a commentary on his skill or his competitiveness — and, quite the contrary, actually. If you were in the ballpark, and you watched as Lee — clutching a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning, cruising past 100 pitches — struck out Jerry Hairston Jr. to end the inning, his seventh strikeout in nine batters, you saw a bounty of skilled determination.
But in the eighth inning, when the Dodgers’ Elian Herrera banged Lee’s 122nd pitch of the night — a hanging curveball begging to be hit — off the leftfield wall and over a leaping Juan Pierre, two runs scored and Lee was done. A 1-0 lead had become a 2-1 deficit. He had walked only one and struck out 12. He had thrown 92 strikes. But as he ran from the mound to the dugout, accompanied by cheers from the crowd, Lee knew he could not win. Again.
It is to the point at which a normal person, a third of the way through a season, would be ready to snap. Lee, though, insists he is not.
"I’m not really frustrated," he said. "I’m not. All I can do is throw pitches. I don’t set goals, that I’ve got to have this many wins or whatever. I just want to put up as many zeros as I can, get deep in the game, throw strikes, don’t walk guys, give the team a chance to win. That’s all I can do and that’s what I’m going to continue to try to do.
“Would I like to have a better record or like to have some wins? Yeah. But what can I do about that?"
What could he do?
"I guess he can throw a no-hitter and give up nothing. I guess he could do that," Phils manager Charlie Manuel said, mostly because laughing occasionally takes his mind off his mind-numbingly inconsistent offense, which has tended this season to run the gamut from cold to lukewarm.
In his nine starts, the Phillies have scored the resounding total of 16 runs while Lee has been in the game. Most nights, he is one mistake away from being behind. To say that this is stressful is to state the obvious.
"There’s nothing I can do about it," Lee said. "That’s something that’s kind of out of my control. All I can do is go out there and make pitches and try to put up as many zeros as I can and keep the other team from scoring and get as deep into the game as I can.
“I’m going to do that whether we’re winning by 12 runs or whether it’s a tie game or whatever."
The tyranny of baseball statistics works like this: A pitcher who is 10-1 never has to explain anything about how many people he is walking or the fortuitousness of his run support. You win 10 games and there is no thought process. Ten wins gets you any automatic pat on the back and an unqualified assumption of excellence.
But the opposite is not always true. Now, Lee’s hard luck is starting to tease recent baseball history. Lee now has nine straight winless starts in which he has lasted at least six innings, struck out at least four batters and given up no more than five runs. It has been 7 years since a pitcher had a longer streak of winless excellence with those stats: Milwaukee’s Doug Davis in 2005.
At some point, the law of averages has to work for him. Or luck. Or something.
"If we’re relying on luck, we’re relying on the wrong things," Lee said. "It’s more about executing and playing fundamentally sound baseball. If we do that consistently, we’ll win consistently. I don’t think we’re relying on luck, or bad luck, or any of that. That’s bogus to me. When you get lucky, that’s good. But you can’t rely on that."
The case of the worst luck ever suffered by a pitcher might have been Nolan Ryan’s season in 1987. He was 40 years old at the time, playing for the Houston Astros, and he led the National League in both ERA and strikeouts, which is supposed to be a pretty automatic ticket to the Cy Young Award. But he won only eight games, lost 16, and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting (which was won by Phillies closer Steve Bedrosian).
In eight of his 16 losses, Ryan received only one run of support while he was in the game. In six of them, he got no runs. Five times, he left the game with a lead only to see the bullpen blow it.
"It was the strangest season I’ve ever spent," Ryan said.
If this goes on much longer, he and Cliff Lee can compare notes. n
Contact Rich Hofmann at firstname.lastname@example.org, read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich, or follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.