Cliff Lee delivers first victory for Phillies to avert sweep

SCOTT CUNNINGHAM / GETTY IMAGES Philllies' Cliff Lee throws pitch in first inning against Braves.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM / GETTY IMAGES Philllies' Cliff Lee throws pitch in first inning against Braves.
Posted: April 05, 2013

ATLANTA - If the baseball gods had it in for the Phillies in Atlanta, the ball that betrayed Chase Utley's glove to begin the bottom of the sixth inning would have led to a game-tying rally.

Instead, Gerald Laird, the Braves' leadoff baserunner, didn't move an inch off first. Cliff Lee was out of the inning six pitches later.

In the third game of the Phillies' season, an All-Star ace took the mound and didn't disappoint. In a week that began with Cole Hamels serving up a hat trick of homers and continued with Roy Halladay needing 95 pitches before exiting in the fourth inning, Lee blanked the supersized Atlanta lineup in a crisp, 2-0 victory on a cool, damp night at Turner Field.

"He was in command the whole game," manager Charlie Manuel said.

After Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton beat up the Phillies' pitching staff to the tune of 16 runs in the first two games of the series, Lee silenced the same bats and prevented a sweep, too.

Lee set down the Braves in order in the first inning and only picked up steam as the night continued. After the Utley error, Lee retired the final nine batters he faced before handing the ball over to Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.

Lee faced the minimum in six of his eight shutout innings and sent 13 of the final 14 batters he faced back to the home dugout with their bats tucked between their legs on a day when conditions weren't exactly ideal for baseball. It was 40 degrees in Atlanta at first pitch.

But it meshed well with Lee, who has called Cleveland and Philadelphia home during his career.

"When it's that cold, it's not that big of a deal to throw more pitches, in my opinion," said Lee, who threw 106 pitches in his first start of 2013. "When it's 95 degrees, it's more taxing and it'll take more out of you. The cold weather allows you to throw more pitches without taking as much out of you."

Lee didn't save the season. It's April 5. There are 159 games remaining on the schedule.

But he did help the Phils board their charter plane out of Hartsfield-Jackson International at a reasonable time - the game was over in 153 minutes - and arrive in Philly with slightly less panic for the home opener.

"Oh that's without a doubt," Manuel said with a chuckle. "Yes, without a doubt that helps. We've got hope now."

In a first week of the season when some pitchers are still working out the kinks or continuing to build stamina, Lee's pitching performance was brilliant.

He threw 78 pitches for strikes. He struck out eight batters while walking none.

It was even more remarkable since the Braves might have the most potent lineup in the National League. The trio of Heyward, Freeman and Justin Upton - who combined for four home runs and 11 RBI in the first two games of the series - went 1-for-9 with three strikeouts against Lee.

"They seemed really aggressive and they were swinging the bat pretty good," Lee said of watching the Braves go to work against Hamels and Halladay. "I tried to allow them to see the fewest amount of pitches as possible, attacked the zone and had good locations. Locate the fastball. And if they're getting on the fastball, go with something else. I try to keep it simple."

Lee also helped a sluggish Phillies offense move along the bases in what turned out to be the only inning they'd score on Thursday.

Laynce Nix, making his first start of the season, led off the second with a single and Erik Kratz followed with a double to left. Lee, who took a big cut but same up empty on a 3-1 pitch, ended up working a walk to load the bases.

The Phils, who left 17 runners on base in the first two games, played small ball to score twice in the inning.

Ben Revere hit into what looked like a doubleplay, but Braves second baseman Dan Uggla couldn't pull the trigger to get the second out. Phillies, 1-0.

After Jimmy Rollins worked walked No. 3 off Braves starter Kris Medlen, Utley hit a sacrifice fly to collect his sixth RBI in three games. Phillies, 2-0.

"We're going to knock them in," Manuel said of his team leaving 26 men on base in the series. "Let me tell you something, we're going to knock them in. We're going to score some runs. We have a good enough team to score some runs. We have to get our big guys hitting, and [Ryan Howard] hit the ball hard tonight. He had one hit, but he hit the ball hard."

The Phils' offense went quiet after the second inning, but Lee made the two runs stand up in a pitching performance Phils fans had to wait 4 days to see in the first week of the season.

For Lee, his first win came on the Fourth of April . . . or exactly 3 months earlier than his first win in a hard-luck 2012.

"Last year I got the first one on the Fourth of July," Lee said. "So it's nice to get that out of the way with the first one, no doubt."

Inciarte back to D-backs

Following Thursday's game, the Phillies returned Rule 5 pick Ender Inciarte to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Phils designated Inciarte for assignment on Wednesday, but after he cleared waivers they had to offer him back to Arizona as per Rule 5 stipulations.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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