Pitching in the postseason is supposed to be stressful. Cliff Lee is making this all look so easy.
The ace of October overpowered the New York Yankees again, striking out 13 and sending the Texas Rangers to an 8-0 victory Monday night for a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven AL championship series.
Josh Hamilton hit an early two-run homer off Andy Pettitte and started a six-run outburst in the ninth with a leadoff double. Lee allowed only two singles in eight innings and became the first pitcher to reach double digits in strikeouts three times in one postseason.
“It's tough to be better than that,” Yankees slugger Mark Teixeira said.
Mr. Automatic improved to 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight postseason starts. Three of those wins have come against the power-packed Yankees, including two in last year's World Series for Philadelphia.
New York won the other four games against the Phillies to take home its 27th championship, but now faces a tall task to repeat. The Yankees must win three straight against the resilient Rangers to advance without facing Lee in a decisive Game 7 at Texas.
“I'm not satisfied,” Lee said. “We still have some work to do here. A lot of fun to come into New York and get this first one. Hopefully we can come out here tomorrow and pick up where we left off.”
It'll be a tough act to follow after Lee and the Rangers handed the Yankees the most lopsided shutout loss in their storied postseason history. The left-hander also joined Orlando Hernandez (8-0) and Orel Hershiser (7-0) as the only pitchers to win their first seven postseason decisions.
About the only slip-up all night for Lee came when he stumbled as he stepped up to his seat at the postgame podium.
“Booby trap right here,” he said with a grin.
Game 4 is Tuesday night and the Yankees will start struggling right-hander A.J. Burnett, who hasn't pitched since Oct. 2. Tommy Hunter goes for Texas in his first start at Yankee Stadium.
In the previous best-of-seven league championship series that were tied 1-all, the Game 3 winner advanced to the World Series 19 of 27 times, according to STATS LLC.
“I don't think we're in trouble,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We're down 2-1, we're not down 3-0. It's frustrating we've lost two games in a row, but we've lost two games in a row a lot of times before and come back.”
Pettitte, the ol' pro seeking his 20th postseason win, did his best to match Lee. But the longtime New York lefty hung a first-inning cutter that Hamilton yanked over the short porch in right for his second homer of the series.
“It was just a bad pitch,” Pettitte said. “At the time, you don't think that's going to win the ballgame.”
Lee matched a career high for strikeouts and Texas broke it open in the ninth against an ineffective David Robertson, getting RBI singles from Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina, plus a two-run single by Mitch Moreland.
Rookie closer Neftali Feliz flung his 100 mph fastball and finished the two-hitter in a nearly empty ballpark, adding two strikeouts to increase Texas' total to 15 — one shy of a postseason record for Yankees batters.
New York's two hits matched a postseason low also set in Game 4 of the 1958 World Series and Game 3 of the 2001 division series.
Lee nearly landed with the Yankees before Seattle traded him to Texas on July 9. Maybe they should have offered a few of their many All-Stars — Lee doesn't seem to need much help.
New York could try again by throwing money at him in the offseason, when he can become a free agent.
“He certainly got their attention,” Rangers president Nolan Ryan said with a chuckle.
Michael Young had three hits for the Rangers, who are 4-0 on the road in these playoffs. Texas won all three games at Tampa Bay in the first round, including a pair of masterpieces by Lee.
Then he said he was looking forward to facing the Yankees.
Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Co. fared no better than the Rays. Cutters, curves, sliders — they couldn't touch Lee, who pumps in one strike after another like a robot programmed to do so.
“It's really not that easy. He's not just firing balls down the middle of the plate, he's throwing quality strike after quality strike and there's a big difference,” Young said.
Lee was so dominant, New York hitters were left shaking their heads in the dugout or questioning calls by plate umpire Jim Reynolds.
Robinson Cano showed bunt, Brett Gardner tried another headfirst dive into first base. None of it worked.
Gardner singled leading off the sixth and stole second, but Lee never rattled. He struck out Jeter for the second time, then induced routine grounders from Nick Swisher and Teixeira, who is 0 for 11 in the series.
“It's really fun being out in center field and watching him pitch,” Hamilton said. “It's just amazing to watch.”
Lee has 67 strikeouts and seven walks in 64 1-3 postseason innings. Even after throwing a season-high 122 pitches, he was going to pitch the ninth until Texas broke it open.
“We were going to ride him,” manager Ron Washington said.
Lee retired his first 11 batters, striking out seven, before missing high with a full-count fastball to Teixeira. His only walk in 24 innings this postseason, it drew a loud roar and a standing ovation from some in the sellout crowd of 49,840.
Rodriguez drove the next pitch to deep left-center, but Cruz reached down for a running catch that ended the fourth.
Jorge Posada fisted an opposite-field single into shallow right with two outs in the fifth for New York's first hit.
Working quickly as usual, Lee ran his total to 34 strikeouts in three playoff starts this year. Opponents are batting .173 against him in his postseason career.
The 38-year-old Pettitte set down 15 of 16 after the home run, but it wasn't enough. Pitching on 10 days' rest, he lost for the first time in his last 10 postseason starts.