Lee finally wins at home as Phillies sweep Nationals

Cliff Lee used his bat and his arm to nail down his first home win of 2012. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Cliff Lee used his bat and his arm to nail down his first home win of 2012. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 28, 2012

When Adam LaRoche's bat met a 91-m.p.h. fastball from Cliff Lee, everyone including the pitcher thought it was a prelude to more inexplicable chaos. Lee cocked his head, lifted his left foot, and knew what was coming. Jayson Werth trotted toward an elated Washington dugout with LaRoche close behind.

Once the ball deflected and bounced high into the sky, that was that.

"I thought it went into the stands," Lee said Sunday after a 4-1 Phillies win over the Washington Nationals. "I didn't know what was going on."

It had to happen this way. Few bounces have benefited Lee in a cruel season, but this was the sign. A replay review ruled that the ball smashed off a gray chain-link fence at Citizens Bank Park - not a home run - and was in play.

LaRoche was tagged out and Lee escaped the inning with only one run allowed.

"I felt good about that," Lee said.

Considering that Lee had not won at home since Sept. 5, 2011, that could qualify as the understatement of the season. Lee avoided trouble, his teammates played a crisp game behind him, and good fortune arrived. A three-game sweep of the Nationals, baseball's best team, had everyone in the home dugout smiling.

They were happy for Lee.

"He's had a different kind of season," manager Charlie Manuel said. "It's really hard to analyze it, all the things that have gone wrong with him."

Pitchers with a 3.67 ERA and a major-league leading strikeout-to-walk ratio should not have just three wins. A won-lost record is hardly an accurate measurement of a pitcher's contribution. Whether it is bad luck, poor timing, or simply a failure to execute, Lee has fallen victim to just about every plight.

The same could be said for a Phillies team that has dug its own grave only to display fleeting signs of life. The Phillies are six games under .500 for the first time since June 28. They face a 91/2-game deficit for the second wild-card berth with four teams to pass.

To win 88 games, a rough estimation of what it would take to qualify, the Phillies would have to finish the season on a 27-7 run. They have not played at a clip like that since the end of 2010.

The website CoolStandings.com simulates the remainder of the season one million times and uses algorithms to assign probabilities for making the postseason. The Phillies entered Sunday with a chance of less than 0.1 percent.

Finishing at .500 will prove difficult enough. To do that, they must finish 20-14. They have done that in a 34-game span just once this season.

This sweep of Washington could be remembered as the best baseball the Phillies played all season. The starting pitching was pristine. The offense, teeming with minor-league players, delivered timely hits. There were no defensive gaffes. The makeshift bullpen was unhittable.

"We like to play," Manuel said, issuing his highest compliment, "and we come out with a good attitude and a good mind-set, too."

Lee jolted a ballpark to life with his bat in the fifth inning. He socked a Jordan Zimmermann fastball well over Bryce Harper's head in center for a double to score Kevin Frandsen from second base with the game's first run.

The next batter, Jimmy Rollins, blasted one to deep right for a two-run homer. Winning finally felt realistic for Lee.

"He kind of made his own energy," Manuel said, "didn't he?"

"I expect that if I get a pitch over the plate that I should hit it," Lee said, "but at the same time, I am a pitcher and anything I can do that is positive is a bonus."

His work on the mound was better. Lee and Zimmermann matched zeros early with a frenetic pace. Thirty-one of Lee's first 39 pitches were strikes and he broke at least three Nationals bats in the first three innings.

It was dominance regularly seen here. For Lee, it finally resulted in a personal victory.

Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @magelb

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