There's Lee, and then there's everyone else
Ace distancing himself from other starters after latest gem
NEW YORK -- Cliff Lee has taken over the top spot. And he is leading by so much that second place can barely be seen from where he is now.
The left-hander has become Mr. October of the pitching world. In fact, he was Mr. October of the pitching world before Monday night, but there may have been a pocket of doubters remaining in the Bronx. There can't be any doubt left now.
Lee pitched the Rangers to a Game 3 victory over the New York Yankees on Monday night, the 8-0 triumph giving Texas a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series. It was another utterly dominant Lee performance -- eight innings of shutout ball, two hits, one walk and 13 strikeouts, tying a career high.
By any measurement, real or symbolic, this was a major pitching event, not only because the Yankees and Rangers were battling for the series lead. Lee was matched against Andy Pettitte, who has carved out a place all his own in baseball history with 19 postseason victories, the all-time record.
Pettitte is an admirable pitcher in every conceivable way, but the competition here suggested itself as quantity vs. quality. Pettitte is 19-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 42 postseason starts. Lee is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight postseason starts.
You cannot compare the bodies of postseason work. Nobody's postseason record resembles Pettitte's at this point. But you can pick a winner for the here and now, this mid-October, this series, this moment. It is Lee.
Other current contenders? Compared to Lee, they're all up and down. Yes, Roy Halladay of the Phillies opened his postseason career with a no-hitter, but then he lost his second start. Cole Hamels of the Phillies had a dominant 2008 postseason and may be on the way to another one this autumn, but in between, he had a 7.58 ERA in the '09 postseason. Pitching in the playoffs is pitching at its most difficult, against baseball's best lineups. CC Sabathia is the Yankees' recognized ace, and even he, in 12 postseason starts, has a 4.79 ERA.
You can look at recent history and see pitchers who performed as well as Lee in one postseason. There were Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling for Arizona in 2001. There was Josh Beckett for Boston in '07. There was Hamels for Philadelphia in '08. But what you don't see is the sort of back-to-back domination Lee has produced. Lee was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the 2009 postseason. He has encored with a 3-0 record and a 0.75 ERA to date in the '10 postseason. He is 3-0 against the Yankees in the past two postseasons.
Where does Lee stand?*
In all three of his playoff starts this October, he has struck out 10 or more men, becoming the first pitcher to do that in one postseason.
On Monday night, Pettitte pitched as well as ever against the Rangers, allowing just two runs over seven innings. These were the same numbers he had in his AL Division Series victory over the Minnesota Twins. But he was facing Carl Pavano in that game. The resemblance between Pavano and Lee pretty much ends at two arms and two legs. This would have been postseason victory No. 20 for Pettitte had be been matched against almost any pitcher but Lee.
"Cliff was great tonight, to say the least," Pettitte said. "He was just outstanding. You can't say enough about what he did tonight in this ballpark; to be able to do what he did is pretty impressive."
Lee's performance here could not be matched. Against the classic postseason team in a venue that typically chews up October opponents, Lee produced a game that was great even by his standards. But the thing about this start against the Yankees was that Lee had a very similar result against them, in his last start against them on Sept. 12 pitching eight innings while giving up two hits. The Yankees made even less contact in this game, but taken together, these two results indicate that Lee is at a level at which even baseball's best offense cannot reach him. And in this postseason game, he had to be close to flawless, because it was a two-run game until the Texas offense exploded for six runs in the top of the ninth.
"Well, I tell you, what we've seen tonight is what we've been seeing," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "The guy can pitch. He can move the ball around. He can change speeds. He can hit spots. He can do whatever he has to do. [It] showed tonight. To do what he did to that lineup, that's a strong lineup over there. You definitely have to tip your hat to Cliff Lee."
The great Nolan Ryan, now the Rangers' team president, weighed in with superlatives upon behalf of Lee.
"He's just phenomenal with the performances, and he's so consistent," Ryan said. "You hate to say that's what your expectation is of him, but that's what it is because he's been so consistent that way. [Lee is] the most consistent pitcher I've ever seen. He's only walked one guy in  innings? That's unbelievable."
Lee takes nothing for granted and is interested in adding up neither statistics nor accolades.
Whatever he's doing, he should keep doing it. Look at it this way; it's October and your team desperately needs to win a postseason game. Pick a pitcher. That's right -- Cliff Lee.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.