Lee in complete command entering ALDS
Lefty ready to set tone by sticking to strike zone in St. Pete
ST. PETERSBURG -- Whenever a hitter faces Rangers left-hander Cliff Lee, they know most of the pitches are going to be in the strike zone.
Good luck in figuring out which part of the strike zone he'll use during any given at-bat.
Lee, the epitome of a control pitcher with command, takes his laser-like pitches under the Tropicana Field roof on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. CT on TBS, facing the American League East champion Rays in the first game of the best-of-five AL Division Series.
"Obviously, the first game is a big one," Lee said on Tuesday. "You want to set the tone. You want to win the first one, especially in their place. It turns into us having the home-field advantage, so that's a big thing."
Lee went on to say that the Rangers must "carry their weight" and "play as one unit."
Pitching and defense usually decide the outcome of short series, and the Rangers are confident the playoff-seasoned Lee is just the guy to lead the AL West champions into the first round and hopefully beyond.
That being said, beating the Rays is something Lee has not done this season. One-third of his nine losses were to the AL East champs by scores of 8-3, 2-1 and 6-4.
"That has nothing to do with what's going to happen tomorrow," Lee said. "It's a new game. We start over on a new slate and I'm going to expect to go out there and have success. I would anticipate them thinking the same thing."
"We had a little success against him this year," Rays batting coach Derek Shelton said, "and the main reason is we pitched very good against him. They were low-scoring games and most of our success came late in the games."
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And what will it take to be successful against him in the ALDS opener?
"We have to be ready to hit because we know he's going to throw the ball in the strike zone," Shelton said. "He commands four pitches, throws them for strikes on both sides of the plate as well as anybody in the game. He's going to give you an opportunity to hit the ball. He's not going to beat himself."
And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Lee tick.
"He puts the ball exactly where he wants it and is real effective working both sides of the plate," veteran Athletics infielder Mark Ellis said. "He can move it away from you or cut it in on your hands. He doesn't do anything fancy and he works quick.
"He throws strikes."
That he does.
Of the 2,976 pitches Lee threw during the regular season, 2,121 were strikes. Before being traded to the Rangers on July 9, Lee pitched a game against the Cubs at Safeco Field in which he threw 115 pitches; 90 of them were strikes.
A majority of pitchers would not have that kind of pinpoint control playing catch.
"He not only controls the fastball and other pitches, but he doesn't mess around too much," Rangers catcher Bengie Molina said. "He is not trying to trick you or do anything special. His philosophy is, 'I'm going to get you or you're going to get me.'"
Lee hopes to pick up on Wednesday at The Trop where he left off with the Phillies last season, when he posted a 4-0 record and a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for the National League champions.
The uniform is different, but Lee's reputation as a strike-throwing machine has remained the same.
"He probably could throw a strike with every pitch if he wanted to," former Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair said.
Among his mind-boggling achievements this season was going through a four-start stretch in June without walking a batter. Three of those games were complete-game wins, and in his last five starts with Seattle, he walked two, struck out 39 and usually needed about two hours to complete his work.
"He's stubborn, in a good way," Adair said. "I think he feels like he's never going to beat himself. If he gets beat, they are going to beat him."
But to beat him, it has to be done with a bat, not patience.
Lee rarely puts on a runner on base via a walk or hit-by-pitch. Of the 843 batters he faced during the regular season, 18 reached base on walks (two intentional) and one was hit by a pitch.
He issued one four-pitch walk the entire season, which covered 212 1/3 innings.
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"A lot of guys throw strikes, but he throws quality strikes," Ellis said. "You try to be aggressive against him, but he doesn't leave anything in the middle of the plate. That's why he has been so good."
Ellis, by the way, is 4-for-24 in his career against Lee.
Adair spent almost half a season working with Lee and was impressed with every aspect of the left-hander's game.
"He's as professional as they come," Adair said. "His preparation, his routine, his thought process and the simplicity never changes."
Whether it's in Spring Training, the regular season or the postseason, Lee's mission is the same and the size of the spotlight doesn't matter.
"I think one of the reasons he has been so successful in the postseason is because of the way he handles pressure," Adair said. "Every athlete feels some kind of pressure, and as the stakes get higher, so does the pressure.
"Cliff is so calm and knows himself so well that he uses pressure to his advantage. He senses the pressure that the hitters are feeling and flips it around. He never shows any emotion."
The 34-year-old former AL Cy Young Award winner scoffed at the notion that there is additional pressure on him because, for the second consecutive year, he came to a new team as a hired gun, so to speak.
"For me, there's not any pressure," he said, "I expect more out of myself than anyone expects out of me. Every time I take the mound, I expect to give the team a chance to win, get deep in the game and limit the amount of runs that other team scores."
He also expects to throw most of his pitches in the strike zone.
"I feel like I can locate pitches and I've got a few different weapons that I feel like I can use in any count," Lee said. "My success is due to locating pitches and having conviction in every pitch I throw."
It has been a terrific formula so far, especially in the postseason.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.