Costello: Who has it?
Costello: So I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally.
Abbott: No you don't! You throw the ball to Who.
Abbott: That's different.
Costello: That's what I said!
-- Who's On First
* * *
Mark Teixeira was the first New York hitter to strike out on Monday night at Yankee Stadium against Cliff Lee. Teixeira offered at an 86-mph change-up that was probably two-inches off the outside corner. That was Tom Glavine's pitch, the one he dined on for 22 seasons and 305 career victories -- a change-up just off the corner. There's almost nothing productive a hitter can do with that pitch. The only effective way to deal with it is to let it go, make the pitcher come back to the plate next time, or (if it is really close) just try to spoil it, foul it back. The problem is, the pitch looks so easy to drive. It looks so big and fluffy in the batter's line of sight. It really is the closest thing to the Bugs Bunny's perplexing slow ball. Teixeira had to try and hit it. And he had to miss.
Alex Rodriguez was the second New York hitter to strike out against Lee. The count was 2-2 and Lee threw the same 86-mph change-up that baffled Tex, a change-up just off the plate, and A-Rod did the right thing, he fouled the ball off, gave himself another pitch. Lee then threw an 87-mph change-up another inch off the plate, and A-Rod again did the right thing, he let it go ... only this time the pitch actually wasn't a change-up. It was the cutter. The ball cut back toward A-Rod at the last second, flew over the outside corner of the plate. The umpire called strike three.
Marcus Thames was the third New York hitter to strike out against Lee. He went up there to determined to hold his own, he was swinging at everything, like a guy being attacked by bees. He fouled off a fastball on the outside corner, fouled off a cutter that buzzed inside, fouled off fastball that was up and in, fouled off that dreaded change-up on the outside corner. When a hitter fouls off so many hot pitches, you credit them for hanging in there, and Thames was hanging in there. But his head was spinning. He looked a bit dizzy. He struck out swinging on a cutter that broke in when he clearly expected it to break away.
* * *
It's hard to know exactly when Cliff Lee became this sort of artist in residence. He wasn't this kind of pitcher at all when he started pitching regularly for the Cleveland Indians in 2004. He was all power then, a somewhat moody 6-foot-3 lefty from Arkansas who could and did throw high-90s gas. He had other pitches, for whatever that's worth ... a mediocre slider, a promising but undeveloped curveball, a Fleetwood Mac change-up that would go its own way. He was an archetype then, a hard-throwing lefty without much of an idea. He'd strike you out, he'd walk you, he'd give up long home runs, he'd get in trouble with his other pitches and then, often enough, get out of it with his best heat. And when he did poorly, he'd get furious. He once threw his glove 20 rows into the stands.
He won 18 games in 2005 and lost only 5 and because of that differential he got some Cy Young votes he probably did not deserve (his 2.3 Wins Above Replacement that year was 33rd among American League starters). He was probably thought of as being better than he actually was as a pitcher. He won 14 more in 2006, though his 4.40 ERA was only slightly better than league average and scouts muttered that his fastball was losing velocity.
* * *
Jorge Posada was the fourth New York hitter to strike out Monday night. Lee threw him five fastballs to five different parts of the plate. There was nothing tricky involved. Lee threw a fastball low and outside, then one up and over the middle, a third belt high and inside, a fourth over the outside corner and finally that last over the inside corner. Posada swung through the last one. Every one of those pitches registered at 91 or 92 mph.
Curtis Granderson was the fifth New York hitter to strike out. He swung and missed a curveball. It was the fifth curveball that Lee had thrown on the night -- and the first four were all called for balls. Lee generally seems to throw the curveball when he sees the concentric circles spinning in batters eyes, when he can tell their minds are muddled and they are guessing. Usually the hitters buckle and let the curveball go and hope for the umpire to call it a ball (something umpires often do -- perhaps just to keep things fair). This time Granderson swung. He missed.
Derek Jeter was the sixth New York hitter to strike out. Pitchers all around baseball know that Jeter cannot hold back on high fastballs. They have always been his baseball temptress. He has had plenty of success on high fastballs, which makes them dangerous pitches to throw. But if you can throw the fastball just one inch higher than Jeter likes it, one inch, you can finish him off. Cliff Lee throws the 93-mph fastball one inch higher than Jeter likes it. And Jeter swung and missed.
* * *
Nothing went right from the start in 2007 for Cliff Lee. He injured his groin in spring training. He was not quite ready for his fastball to lose some of its heat. The Indians were badgering him to throw more of his secondary pitches, to not rely so much on his fastball.
And, though he'd had some success, he really did not know how to be a pitcher. That lack of certainty finally bubbled to the surface. Hitters teed off. Lee gave up 28 doubles and 17 home runs in fewer than 100 innings. Those secondary pitches still had no shape, and his fastball was not getting him out of trouble anymore, and Lee felt the world closing in. He beaned Sammy Sosa on the night Sosa was being honored for hitting his 600th home run and did not even leave the mound to check on him (sparking an argument between Lee and his catcher, Victor Martinez). Lee mockingly tipped his cap to booing fans. The Indians had a very good team in 2007, and they really did not need that sort of thing. Lee was sent to the minor leagues.
It isn't like everything changed in the minor leagues, either. It doesn't work like that. Lee walked 25 in 41 Class AAA innings down there. But getting sent to the minor leagues when you're a 28-year-old pitcher is a challenge moment, a "Who am I going to be?" kind of moment. Many don't make it back. Lee found a whole other pitcher in himself.
* * *
Nick Swisher was the seventh New York hitter to strike out, and at this point Lee was so mesmerizing that Swisher was actually CELEBRATED for his strikeout. Hey, at least he made Lee work. He fouled off six straight pitches -- an up-and-away fastball, a cutter that worked its way back over the plate, an up-and-in fastball, a down-and-in cutter, a fastball that brushed the outside of the plate, and a fastball that brushed the inside of the plate. None of those pitches, not one of them, was a good pitch to hi, but they were strikes anyway, and Swisher spoiled them one after another, and maybe this was the only way to get to Lee, maybe the only real plan was to keep fouling off pitches until he made his mistake. Lee then threw a cutter outside and at the knees and Swisher swung over it. No mistake this time.
Thames was the eighth strikeout victim. Last time he was fooled by a cutter. This time he swung over a curveball that bounced just beyond the plate. Catcher Bengie Molina chased down the ball and threw it to first to complete the strikeout.
Granderson was the ninth strikeout. Lee and Molina apparently realized he first time through that Granderson could not lay off Lee's curveball. That pitch had become hypnotic for Granderson. So Lee threw the curve with two strikes and Granderson did swing though he managed to foul it off. He was not completely asleep yet. Lee threw a low and away fastball that Granderson fouled off, and then threw the curveball again. This time Granderson amenably swung and missed.
* * *
Lee was a thoroughly different pitcher in 2008. There's the famous story about the jazz genius Charlie Parker, how he was nothing particularly special as a saxophonist, then he went away for a while and when he came back he was, in the words of Buck O'Neil, "blowing sounds nobody had ever heard before."
Cliff Lee started off the 2008 season by winning his first six starts. His seventh start he threw nine shutout innings but took a no-decision. His ERA then was 0.67. His strikeout to walk ratio was 44-to-4.
What happened? Suddenly, Lee's control was pinpoint, his curveball was unhittable, his change-up was tantalizing, his cutter was devastating. Baseball people talk all the time about "the light coming on." That was the usual line about Lee in 2008 -- he suddenly figured things out. The light came on.
But ... what light? It's not like Lee figured out one or two things. He was inventing a whole different kind of pitching. What other lefty could come at you with five pitches, all commanded, all controlled? Who else could be a little bit of Glavine AND a little bit of Maddux? It was startling, not because Lee had become a great pitcher -- that always seemed possible -- but because he had become THIS KIND of great pitcher. He walked just 34 batters all year. He gave up the fewest home runs per nine innings in the league. He led the league in ERA. He was preposterously good in a whole new way. He had become a power pitcher AND a finesse pitcher. And hitters were dizzy.
And then, because of his circumstances, Lee became something else -- gun for hire. The Indians could not afford him, so Lee was traded to Philadelphia where he had one of the great postseasons ever, winning four games with a 1.56 ERA. But there was something weird about his relationship with the Phillies, something just a little bit off, and the Phillies traded him to Seattle before this season after getting Roy Halladay, an odd move that nobody quite understood. Then it looked like he would be traded to the Yankees, and he ended up in Texas instead.
And this year, despite injuries and a brief slump, Lee walked 18 batters in 212 innings. Eighteen batters. He doesn't give up home runs. He throws complete games. His 10.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best ever for a pitcher who has thrown 200 innings. Best. Ever.
And though Halladay threw a no-hitter, and Lincecum had his brilliant game against the Braves, this has been Lee's postseason. He is the master at work.
* * *
Jeter was the 10th strikeout. The Yankees had actually managed to get the leadoff man on base for the first time in the game ... and that leadoff man was burner Brett Gardner. There was little doubt he would try to steal. The TV announcers seemed a bit excessive in their praise Jeter for allowing strike two -- an inside-corner fastball -- go by so that Gardner could steal second base. They did not say much of anything, when Jeter swung and missed another temptress fastball an inch higher than useful.
Which for some reason reminds me of this exchange in the movie Gandhi.
Gandhi: You're a temptress!
Margaret-Bourke White: Just an admirer.
Gandhi: Nothing is more dangerous, especially for an old man.
Thames was strikeout No. 11. By now, poor Marcus seemed struck out before he ever stepped into the batter's box. Lee threw five pitches, all on the inner half of the plate, the last a high fastball that Thames swung under. He might have been expecting something else. Or he might have given up expecting. This was his third strikeout. On this night, it's clear Thames could not hit a ball off a tee if Cliff Lee had been the one to put it there.
Posada was strikeout No. 12. He could have been called out on a two-strike curveball that just barely missed the outside corner -- the announcers would say it went "around the strike zone," a common phrase in baseball though my friend and former big-league umpire Steve Palermo told me that such a thing is impossible. He said the ball doesn't bend that much -- CANNOT bend that much. "A ball cannot go around the strike zone!" Palermo says with authority. Maybe Posada was pondering this question when he watched a 92 mph fastball go over the inside half of the plate for strike three.
Finally, Brett Gardner was the 13th strikeout. Gardner had gotten the only clean hit against Lee -- Posada had managed a bloop single -- and he had almost beaten out an infield hit with what is becoming his trademark slide-into-first-base maneuver. So he was the one guy in the Yankees lineup who seemed to have an idea of how to hit Lee.
So Lee had one last guy to figure out. He had the rest of the Yankees utterly defeated. He had fooled Jeter with high fastballs and Granderson with low curves. He had make Teixeira look foolish on slow change-ups, and he baffled A-Rod with his cutter. He had sent some frustrated Yankees fans home.
Lee threw a fastball on the outside corner for called strike one.
Yes, some of the Yankees crowd had gone home. They had come to the ballgame for a party; they did not need to see any more of this Cliff Lee making a shambles of this three-quarter-of-a-billion-dollar lineup. It is hard to appreciate artistry when it is done at your team's expense, in your ballpark, in your city ...
Lee threw a fastball on the outside corner for called strike two.
Eric Clapton has said that music can be condensed to a single note, if that note is played with the right sincerity. Cliff Lee stood on the mound with an 0-2 count against Brett Gardner and he could have thrown an infinite variety of pitches. He could have thrown his change-up away, his cutter in, his curveball down, his fastball up, his slider (which he rarely throws anymore) down and in, and he could have mixed and matched any of those pitches and those locations. It wouldn't really matter. He now had Brett Gardner as captivated and spellbound as everyone else. He could do pretty much anything, as long as he did with sincerity. All he had to do was throw the ball to who. Who? Naturally.
Cliff Lee threw a fastball on the outside corner. And Brett Gardner watched it go by for strike three.