As it turns out, meeting expectations isn't such a big deal for Cliff Lee.
The Rangers starter came into Monday's game with such a high bar that giving up two runs over nine innings would have been deemed a disappointment but he wound up clearing it anyway with a performance that put him in the record books. Lee allowed only two hits and struck out 13 over eight sparkling innings of work. The lone moral victory comes because Mark Teixeira actually walked to become the first man lucky enough to garner a free pass from Lee this postseason. In the process, Lee became the first pitcher in history to strike out at least 10 batters in three straight playoff starts and was his seventh straight victory over the last two postseasons.
The accolades doesn't stop there. Lee didn't allow a base runner until there were two outs in the fourth inning, didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the fifth inning and allowed just one baserunner past first base all night long. Texas outfielders made just two outs, no Yankee reached base after getting to a two-strike count and Lee struck out at least one batter in every inning of the game. In a postseason that's been full of superlative pitching performances, Lee's was as good as they come in Monday night's 8-0 win.
Andy Pettitte's body of work wasn't too much worse. He didn't walk a batter, struck out five and allowed just five hits over his seven inning to finally give the Yankees a start worthy of the standard set by their rotation this season. His only mistake was a breaking ball to Josh Hamilton in the top of the first inning that hung up a little bit and Hamilton punished him by putting it into the right field seats. It was just one bad pitch, but it was one bad pitch too many when Lee was on the other side of the ledger.
There were some chants of Pettitte's name coming from the seats, an unwelcome reminder that this could conceivably be the last time we see him in pinstripes outside of an Old-Timer's Game. He's earned the right to do whatever he wants, obviously, but we're hopeful he gives it one more whirl in 2011. Pettitte was too good this season for him to think he lost it and it would be nice to see him go out on a better note than footnote in Lee's brush with history.
The bullpen's meltdown in the ninth inning -- six runs on six hits, a walk and a wild pitch -- meant that the Yankees didn't have a chance to work a little magic in their last at-bat. Not that we have much reason to think that they would have. The bats have been silent for all but one inning of the 27 these two teams have played so far.
If this were a random night in July or August, you'd just tip your cap and turn the page to the next day without much trouble. It's October, though, and that means it is a little harder to simply shrug your shoulders and admit that Lee's the better man. As you're certainly aware by now, A.J. Burnett is getting the ball on Tuesday night -- assuming no crisis of confidence from Joe Girardi -- and then the Yankees will go back to CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes after their poor outings in Texas.
With Lee looming in Game Seven and playing the role of Mike Scott against the Mets in the 1986 NLCS, there's going to be a lot of pressure to avoid another date with the man who made them look like little leaguers on Monday night. That would mean a clean sweep of those three games, something that seems daunting given the way the Rangers have owned this series. That could be why the Stadium looked so empty in the ninth inning even before the farcical performance of the Yankee relievers, although it is likely just a continuing symptom of the change to the fan base when the Stadium moved across the street.
It's been a while since we've been here, but the Yankees have their backs against the walls in the playoffs. Tuesday night we'll see how much fight this year's group has in them.