—Citizens Bank Park
After a few up and down outings, the Cliff Lee of old returned. You always knew he was in there, just waiting to be let out of the cage. On Monday night against the struggling Dodgers, the strikeout machine let out a familiar roar, fanning 10 batters in the Phillies 3-1 win, the 800th victory of Charlie Manuel’s career.
Ten earned runs in his previous two starts had many worried that his contract was a mistake, that he was no longer a dominant pitcher, that he threw too many strikes. Lee easily dispelled the rampant rumors of his demise with seven beautiful innings on the mound, allowing seven scattered singles and a walk over 117 pitches. For the 15th time in his career, and already the sixth time in 2011, Lee struck out 10 or more opposing batters.
Lee now leads the major leagues in strikeouts, notching No. 100 to end the seventh. Frank as ever, Lee had a simple answer as to why that number is so high: “They’re swinging and missing more.”
“I’m not trying to strike guys out at all, I’m trying to get them out as quick as possible,” said Lee after his fifth win of the season.
Command seemed to be the underlying issue in his four-earned outing against the Reds on May 26 (which he won, by the way) and his six-earned performance against the Nationals last Tuesday. On Monday, Lee was in full control. Of those 117 pitches, 80 went for strikes. Of those seven singles, two of them were of the infield variety. In the quick sixth inning, he tossed 10 pitches, all 10 of them for strikes, all three batters becoming victims of the K. Dodgers first baseman Casey Blake became enraged over the strikezone, and perhaps his inability to make contact, that he was ejected before the bottom of the sixth.
Things got dicey in the ninth as Ryan Madson was summoned for the save. The Dodgers would score once as Jerry Sands brought home Dee Gordon, the son of former Phillie Tom Gordon, on a fielders choice. It was Gordon’s major league debut.
Noticeably absent from the Lee party was the offense – again. Preferably, they would score more than three runs, although that’s all they needed on this night.
Two came in the third inning off of starter Ted Lilly, who moved as slow as molasses from the start. The first inning took 22 minutes, even though the pitchers combined to throw only 30 pitches.
In the third, Wilson Valdez doubled to the corner in left field for the Phillies first hit of the evening, then moved to third on a sac bunt by Lee – one that nearly decapitated him. After a Shane Victorino walk, Placido Polanco poked one into centerfield, scoring Valdez. Two batters later, Ryan Howard scorched a line drive past the shift into right field, plating Victorino.
Carlos Ruiz would push home an insurance run in the eighth, scoring Chase Utley who reached base on a walk earlier in the inning.
“Our hitting, I feel like it’s gonna come around,” said the Phillies skipper. “I’m waiting, though.”
What he did not need to wait for was a bounce back showing from Lee. And while he was spotty early with some pitches, he seemed to get stronger as the night went on.
Lee’s curveball was a major factor in the sixth – he threw it six times, three in a row to leadoff batter Matt Kemp, all for strikes. However, he used it to mixed results earlier in the game. From innings one through five, Lee tossed nine curves, only four of which were strikes. Then, he dropped the hammer on L.A. with a barrage of them in the sixth.
“It’s a big pitch for me,” Lee said. “I throw a lot of fastballs and a lot of cutters, those are harder pitches, so for me the curveball is the softest pitch I throw and it creates some gap between speeds…I’m gonna continue to work on it and make it more a part of my game.”
Consistency is also something Lee will need to unearth to revert back to the $125 million pitcher the Phillies signed him to be. Consistently, he is striking guys out. If he were to continue this torrid pace of whiffing batters, he’d finish the year with 270 – or 85 more than his high-water mark, which came last season.
But, more strikeouts inevitably means more walks, which leads to more pitches being thrown. Lee is up to 19 walks, one more than all of last season. That is a ridiculous number, hardly achievable every year. Still, we’re learning that although Lee is fanning guys at an unforeseen pace, it has come with it’s disadvantages, too.
The good news is, there is plenty of time for Lee to right his wrongs and find his pinpoint accuracy once again. Plenty of time for him to find the Lee of old and let him out of the cage for good.
– Including tonight, Halladay, Hamels, Lee and Oswalt have combined for 23 starts of 6+ K and 1 BB or less this season (47 total starts among them). Thank you, Paul Boye
-The Phillies drafted outfielder Larry Greene, a 6-foot-1, 225 pounder from Berrien County High School in Nashville, GA. We’ll have more on him tomorrow.