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2010 alcs

Cliff Lee Baffles The Yanks, Again

In the sixth inning of tonight's 8-0 Rangers' Game 3 win over the Yankees, Yankee Stadium was louder than it's been all season. With the Yankees' casual cruise through the regular season and one ALDS game against the Twins that was wrapped up in the fourth inning, the fanbase had forgotten what it was like to have a little fear in 'em. So when Brett Gardner slapped a leadoff single up the middle off Cliff Lee, and then stole second base, the place emerged from its extended slumber and erupted. Lee had looked invincible all night, and here the Yankees were, with their fastest player in scoring position, the top of the order coming up and nobody out. The upper deck was shaking; this was it. Lee walked off the mound, sighed and then shut down the next nine guys he faced as if it were the easiest thing in the world. (The Yankees wouldn't have another baserunner the rest of the night.) Other than Paul O'Neill's appearance on the Jumbotron before the eighth inning, Yankee Stadium was pretty quiet after that.

Lee was historic, throwing eight shutout innings, giving up only two hits and a walk, and striking out 13. (He became the first pitcher to hit double-digit strikeouts three times in a postseason, and tied Bob Gibson's and Randy Johnson's all-time record with five. It's still possible that he's not done, of course.) Those strikeouts were sort of his undoing; the Yankees struck out so often that he couldn't make it out for the ninth, having thrown 122 pitches. That was partly the Yanks' strategy, of course; build up his pitch count and attack the Rangers bullpen. But by the time Lee was out of the game, the Yankees' bullpen had sprung its own leak, giving up six runs in the top of the eighth ninth to put the game out of reach. (Uh, you probably shouldn't expect to see much more David Robertson this series, or any other series.) If you don't believe us, believe the rather shocking number of fans to leave the Stadium before the Yanks' last time at-bat. It made the whole stadium look like Legends Suite looked like most of last year.

It's a shame, because if Andy Pettitte hadn't made one bad pitch to Josh Hamilton in the first inning, before most people had found their seats, this would be the epic pitchers duel everyone thought they were getting from Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum in the NLCS. Pettitte was all the Yankees could have possibly hoped for, throwing seven innings, giving up just five hits and walking no one. Pettitte has won more games any other pitcher in postseason history by giving up two runs in seven innings (actually, a little worse than that); Pettitte was terrific, which no one will remember because Cliff Lee was so otherworldly. The Yankees can take solace in knowing he'll surely doing that for them, come next year's postseason. (Heck, they almost had him this year.) That's extremely small solace. That is nothing solace. But man, seriously: Cliff Lee was unhittable tonight. It's worth saying again.

So: Here were are. The Yankees are down 2-1 heading into a Game 4 in which A.J. Burnett is pitching. A.J. Burnett is the man who must bail the Yankees out. We generally agree with the arguments for starting Burnett, and the largest, to our mind, is Rangers Game 4 starter Tommy Hunter, who's the type of soft tosser that the Yankees should be able to devour. Burnett isn't going against Lee tomorrow; he's going against him. If Burnett can just get the Yankees through five innings, or if he can just not implode, the Yankees have an excellent chance to win, and send CC Sabathia back out, on full rest, on Wednesday. They can take back control of this series and increase their chances of not having to see Cliff Lee until Spring Training. (Lord help the Yankees if they see that guy in a Game Seven.) All that the Yankees need to make this back close to right is for A.J. Burnett not to light himself on fire when he comes out to the mound Tuesday night. No problem. No worries. Nothing to see here.

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Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images