By Mike DiGiovanna / Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES. — With a 7-0 record, 1.26 earned-run average and three complete games in eight career postseason starts, Cliff Lee has thrust himself into an elite class of playoff pitchers from the modern era, a star-studded group headed by Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson .
“Right now, he belongs in that conversation — you can put Lee in that class because of what he’s doing,” said former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, 83. “He has tremendous command of three pitches: a fastball, curve and changeup, and he changes speeds very well. He knows the weaknesses of the hitters and goes after them.
Indeed, the Texas left-hander measures up statistically with Koufax, who went 4-3 with an 0.95 ERA in eight World Series games, and Gibson, who went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA in nine World Series starts.
But as good as Lee has been this October — he won two division series games against Tampa Bay and threw eight shutout innings with 13 strikeouts against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS — not everyone is convinced he belongs with those two fall classics.
“I would not put Cliff Lee in the same category as Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson — they were two of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen,” said Clyde Wright , the 69-year-old former Angels pitcher who threw Anaheim Stadium’s first no-hitter in 1970.
“I know you’ve got to go with the numbers, but if I had my druthers, I’d take Gibson or Koufax in three World Series games, pitch him against Lee each time, and I think I’d come out on top.”
Wright said Lee has been “dominant” and would rank him “among the top five or six” postseason pitchers in baseball history.
That list includes Curt Schilling (11-2, 2.23 ERA in 19 playoff games), John Smoltz (15-4, 2.67 ERA in 41 games), Whitey Ford (10-8, 2.71 ERA in 22 games), Andy Pettitte (19-10, 3.83 ERA in 42 games),Josh Beckett (7-3, 3.07 ERA in 14 games) and closer Mariano Rivera (8-1, 0.71 ERA and 42 saves in 93 games).
But Wright also thinks Lee has benefited from the three-tiered playoff system in place since 1995. Only two of Lee’s playoff wins have come in the World Series.
“Back when Koufax and those guys played, they didn’t have the division series and championship series; they went right to the World Series,” Wright said. “And nine times out of 10, the best two teams played in the World Series. The competition was better. Now, you’re not always pitching against the best teams in the playoffs.”
Koufax, the Dodgers left-hander, had what many consider the most dominating World Series pitching performance of the modern era, going 2-1 with an 0.38 ERA and two shutout victories in 1965 against the Minnesota Twins. He struck out 29 in 24 innings in that series and one of those shutouts came in Game 7 on two days’ rest.
Lasorda, a Dodgers scout that year and a former Brooklyn teammate of the Hall of Fame pitcher, recalled delivering four tickets to Koufax’s hotel room in Minnesota the night before Game 7.
“I had bet (New York sportswriter) Dick Young a box of cigars that Sandy was going to start Game 7, and he said no, it was Don Drysdale’s turn,” Lasorda said. “I got to Sandy’s room at about 10 p.m., and I asked him who was going to start.
“He said — and I have never heard this guy talk this way — that, ‘If (Manager Walter Alston) wants to win tomorrow, he better give the ball to the left-hander.’ I would have bet my house on him. He was so dominating in Game 7, it was unbelievable.”
Two years later, Gibson, the St. Louis ace, dominated the 1967 World Series, going 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA, three complete games, one shutout and 26 strikeouts in 27 innings against the Boston Red Sox, winning Games 1, 4 and 7.
But no pitcher was more dominant in one World Series than Christy Mathewson, who tossed three shutouts, including the Game 5 clincher on one day of rest, to lead the New York Giants over thePhiladelphia Athletics in 1905.
“And not one guy got to third base in those three games,” said Lasorda, who has read several books about Mathewson, one of the famous “First Five” inductees into the Hall of Fame along with Babe Ruth,Ty Cobb , Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner.
“I wish I was on the same team with him,” Lasorda said. “He won 30 games four times. He had a real good sinker, which they called a drop ball then, and pinpoint control. Can you imagine him pitching against some of these guys today?”
Control is also the key for Lee, who does not overpower opponents with his 91-mph fastball but seems to be able to throw it, along with his other pitches, wherever he wants. He is usually ahead in the count, and he has refined his cut fastball, which may be his best weapon this October.
“I think what is separating him from any other pitcher right now is his cutter, how late the break is,” Pettitte, the Yankees left-hander, said. “People say he doesn’t have dominating stuff, but that cutter has to be pretty dominating. It has to be moving extremely well for guys to have such a hard time handling it.”
Lee won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA for the Cleveland Indians, but he has become even more of a control freak since, lowering his walk totals from 43 in 2009 to 18 this season. He has 34 strikeouts and one walk in three playoff starts this month.
“I would like to throw a full season without walking anyone,” Lee said before pitching Game 3 of the ALCS. “I know that’s probably unrealistic, but if you make every single team you face swing, it’s going to pay off in the end. That’s something I’m going to continue to try to get better at.”
That’s not exactly what opposing hitters want to hear. They’re having enough trouble hitting Lee as it is.
“I’ve faced him, and I’ve played defense behind him,” Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. “People always say that Cliff just throws strikes, strikes, strikes. It’s really not that easy. He’s not firing balls down the middle of the plate.
“He’s throwing quality strike after quality strike, and there’s a big difference. He forces the action and makes hitters make decisions. It’s definitely tough on them.”