Led by a typical Cliff Lee playoff pitching performance — 10 K’s, 12 retired in a row at one point — the Texas Rangers jumped off to a 1-0 series lead with James Shields and two home games still left to play. With just one run versus 10 strikeouts in seven innings, Lee helped avenge his 0-3 record against the Rays this year, including an August 16 loss in a match-up against David Price. The Rangers offense also had much more success than that night, as home runs by Ben Molina and Nelson Cruz, and a near-home run by Jeff Francoeur, fueled the Rangers offensive output.
In that August 16 start, the Rangers saw as David Price started the game with 18 fastballs in his first 19 pitches. The same formula was used today (with much less success), with Price using fastballs on all of his first 19 pitches. While they couldn’t use that advanced scouting to their advantage in the first inning, it paid off in the second, when Jeff Francoeur hit a bad first-pitch fastball off the centerfield wall to plate Ian Kinsler. Bengie Molina then muscled the third consecutive fastball he saw to right field, giving the Rangers a 2-0 lead. It was all they would need.
It didn’t feel that way early, as Cliff Lee came out firing almost exclusively fastballs, keeping his plus (or plus-plus) cutter, curve and change all in his back pocket. It almost back-fired in the first, as Lee loaded the bases with one out and Carlos Pena at the plate. After falling behind in the count 2-1, Lee threw an inside fastball up and in. Home plate umpire Tim Welke looked as if he was going to call the pitch a ball, but after Carlos Pena argued that the pitch hit him, Welke called a foul tip strike. Rather than plating the game’s first run or at least gaining a 3-1 count, Pena fell behind 2-2, and would strike out on the seventh pitch of the at-bat.
What followed was a Cliff Lee clinic, with 62 strikes in his last 83 pitches, and the use of all his pitches. Lee struck out Jason Bartlett to end the second inning on a vicious cutter, and caught Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli looking on a pair of nasty looping curveballs in the fourth inning. Lee didn’t have his usual plus-plus change today, but the curveball was good, and the command of his two-seam fastball was very good.
By the numbers, it would appear that Cliff Lee (76 strikes on 104 pitches) had equal control to David Price (77 strikes on 107 pitches) on the day. But, the Rangers had a lineup that came to Tampa ready to hack, bailing David Price out of any walks. This was also because Ron Washington granted the middle of his order a green light on 3-0 counts, a managerial decision that paid off in a big way. In the third inning, Nelson Cruz crushed a grooved 93 mph 3-0 pitch 430 first to centerfield, lowering the Rays win expectancy to just 23.8%. In the fifth inning, Vladimir Guerrero knocked home Josh Hamilton with a double to the center field warning track on another 3-0 fastball.
While Neftali Feliz gave reason for the Tampa crowd to get on their feet in the ninth inning, starting his inning with two walks, the combination of the Rangers fastball hitters and baseball’s best southpaw created too big a gap. Texas now stands in a great position to upset the Rays, with a favorable pitching match-up in Game 2, two games in Arlington, and another Lee appearance scheduled in a potential Game 5.