(Corrects 12th paragraph to say Lee pitched Game 3.)
Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, which the Rangers lead 3-2 heading back to Texas, offered fans the chance to reminisce and ruminate on the what-ifs of baseball.
A disputed home run by the Yankees’ Robinson Cano sparked thoughts of Jeffrey Maier, who as a 12-year-old coaxed Derek Jeter’s, ahem, home run over the fence in the opening game of the 1996 ALCS. And a popup down the left-field line drew comparisons to Steve Bartman, the headphones-wearing Cubs fan who got in the way at the worst of times.
Moises Alou didn’t make that catch and the Cubs, who led the 2003 NLCS 3 games to 1, never did get that fourth win. It’s the hardest one, players in all sports say. Yankees reliever Kerry Wood back then played for the Cubs who, to this day, remain the sport’s loveable losers.
“We all thought it was going to happen,” Wood said of the Cubs reaching the World Series, “but that’s why you go out to play the game.”
Baseball is the quirkiest of games which, on most occasions, offers even longtime followers something they’d never seen before.
Funny bounces make it foolish to say a seven-game series, even one in which one team leads, say 3-0, is over. Yogi Berra’s take on when an athletic competition is over is spot on. It takes 27 outs.
The Yankees said all the right things after their bats awakened in Game 5, a 7-2 New York win behind CC Sabathia. Cano hit a home run and so, too, did Nick Swisher, the ebullient outfielder who says the Yankees can’t wait to play the next one and the one after that.
Looking Past Statistics
“We don’t feel like we’re out of anything,” said Swisher, paying no mind to the statistical truth that 24 of the 30 teams that have led 3-1 have gone on to win the series. “We have one more game -- and one more after that.”
The Yankees did, indeed, show signs of life.
“We got some pitches to hit,” said Yankees captain Jeter, “and we hit them.”
There’s the catch, though. The Yankees got pitches to hit. That might not be the case in Game 7. Provided, of course, the Yankees even get that far. First the Yankees must win tonight, when Phil Hughes faces the Rangers’ Colby Lewis. It’s a rematch of Game 2. Lewis won that one.
The Yankees are talking about signs of life. What they aren’t talking about, at least not yet, is the specter of Cliff Lee -- the unflappable Texas ace who baffled the so-called Bronx Bombers in Game 3. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three. Up, down. Fast, slow. Slower. Lee is the definition of pitcher in a sport awash in throwers. Think Greg Maddux, whose brother, Mike, just happens to be the Texas pitching coach.
Lee, a 32-year-old left-hander, is rested and ready to pitch a deciding Game 7 on Saturday night against Andy Pettitte. Most important, Lee probably isn’t the least bit nervous to pitch in what amounts to the most important game in the history of a franchise that’s never been to the World Series. He’s impervious to the pressure of pitching to expectations.
Lee is keenly aware that wins and losses aren’t life and death.
Taking the mound, even for a Game 7 against the most storied franchise in sports, is easy after doctors in 2001 gave 4-month-old Jaxon Lee a 30 percent chance of surviving leukemia.
Jaxon is 9. And healthy. He pitched one inning in a recent baseball game. He struck out the side.
Suddenly the defending World Series champions don’t seem so scary. No team does. No batter does. No situation.
Lee is 3-0 this postseason, including a win in the decisive Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series. His earned run average is 0.75. No, that isn’t a typo. He’s tossed 24 innings, giving up just 13 hits while striking out 34 and walking, get this, one.
The Rangers manager, Ron Washington, was asked if, given the two-chances-to-win-one scenario, he feels comfortable. He channeled his inner Yogi.
“Comfort,” he said. “You’re never comfortable.”
Maybe not. But having Lee as a failsafe is enough to get any manager pretty close to his comfort zone.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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