Greetings, Rangers fans. My name is Fred. I write here and there over at Brew Crew Ball, the Milwaukee Brewers SB Nation blog. Like most of you, I am ready to quit reading about Tommy John surgery, weight, irrelevant fringe players holding up the back end of highly liquid rosters, and a dog. In accordance, I have been casually browsing the mlb.com archives to re-live some and pretend to re-live other great baseball moments in impatient anticipation of the coming season. I want to share my feelings with you about one of them.
Got to thinking about some of my favorites. My biased mind naturally lingered to the home team, the Milwaukee Brewers. There were a few neural transmissions. CC Sabathia. Nyjer Morgan. Ben Sheets' 18 strikeouts. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun's frequent heroics.
Twelve seconds later, I had accounted for the Brewers' great moments in the last two decades.
But neurons kept firing. Gibson, Puckett, Carter, etc. I soon recalled the most dominant pitching performance I'd ever seen: Game 3 of the 2010 ALDS in New York, where Cliff Lee took the ball for the Rangers after completely blanking the Tampa Bay Rays in two starts in the divisional round, including a series-clinching complete game performance in which he allowed a single run with no walks and 11 strikeouts. He was in the zone. Seriously in the zone.
The Yankees were the next victim. They were a team that finished the 2010 season 1st in the majors in on-base percentage and runs per game, and 2nd in OPS and pitches per plate appearance. Their new home park was and is regarded as one of the league's best for hitters. Hey Cliff, do you care about any of this?
Didn't think so.
Lee surgically sterilized the Yankees. 2 hits. 1 walk. 0 runs. 13 k's in 8 innings. It took 122 pitches to do it, but I'm convinced that if the Rangers didn't score 6 in the 9th and make Lee sit for an extended period, he would've finished it. It was an absolutely magnificent performance given everything working against him. Three baserunners in 8 innings.
Mark Teixiera was baserunner #1. He reached on a hard-earned walk in the 4th inning. Lee quickly got ahead 1-2. A sharp curve missed the outer edge by a whisker and a 2-2 backdoor cutter brushed the lower outside corner, but Jim Reynolds was not convinced. Lee missed on the payoff.
Brett Gardner was baserunner #3. Gardner's leadoff single in the 6th was perfectly legitimate. Lee started him with two fastballs on the inner half and missed over the plate with a cutter which Gardner slapped back up the middle for a clean single. Gardner nearly reached with an infield hit in his first plate appearance. Lee had used a similar pattern - hard in and down, hard in, cutter away - and Gardner rolled over on the cutter, grounding it weakly to first. The second time he saw a 1-1 cutter, he waited it out and confidently drove it back up the middle.
Gardner, a very worthy hitter coming off his best season as a professional, had recognized a pattern. No other hitter that night could say the same (or at least not as confidently). Lee expertly mixed tailing and cutting fastballs, changeups, and curveballs in every location in the strike zone. He was completely unpredictable. Except to Brett Gardner. This minor slipup prefaces my favorite at-bat of all time - Lee's third sequence to Gardner, his final hitter of the night, in the bottom of the eighth inning.
With two outs and trailing by two, Gardner knows priority #1 is getting on base. He isn't likely to be too aggressive on the first pitch. Pitch number one is a fastball, just as in Gardner's first two ABs. Except this time, it starts off the plate and tails back over the lower third of the outer edge.
Lee breaks the trend of hard and in. So begins the "He-knows-I-know-he-knows" recursion. Lee's success had been due to his unpredictability and precision. He's ahead in the count and has had hardly-human consistency with his offspeed pitches which move away from a left-handed hitter. Backdoor pitching has its dangers, and there's little room for error in a 2-run game. Here's the 0-1:
Okay. Same pitch. Little further up. A bit of help from the ump. But two in a row, basically. Still waiting on that cutter. Or a curveball. Certainly at 0-2 he isn't about to give Gardner something to hit. And it certainly won't be the same pitch he just threw twice. Lee shakes off Molina once. I'd bet anything Molina proposed cutter or curveball just off the corner. The 0-2:
What a badass. See the little nod right after the call? Boss. Lee's 122nd pitch was undoubtedly his best. Completely unexpected. Absolutely precise. Check out the strike zone plot:
The truly thrilling moments of baseball, in my estimation, are moments in which there is real greatness on display. When it isn't achieved by luck, happenstance, or by someone else bungling something up. Can you blame Gardner for not swinging at any of those pitches? What could he have done? Maybe poke one through a hole on the infield or get an infielder to nervously bobble one? Spoil it and hope the dead duck rolls foul? Three times, Gardner sees a ball coming out of the pitcher's hand that is 6-8 inches off the black of the plate. Each is an inch away from being a great take.
Three 93 mph fastballs. Bang. Bang. Bang. Nothing Gardner could do. Just a world-class pitcher in an unfathomable rhythm throwing darts on the biggest stage in a crucial situation. Like it's nothing. Brilliant.
I often say it's the moments in baseball that keep us coming back. Not the championships. Not even necessarily winning (Wow, full-blown Brewers fan rationalization here. Whatever.). Great moments are most often accompanied by winning, but it isn't a necessity. I compare it to golf - why does a hacker fork over thousands and thousands of dollars for clubs, balls, and greens fees? It's for that one great stroke out of 100 that releases the endorphins and leaves them desperately craving another. It's the same craving that decorates the air in Arizona and Florida in March. Every team is looking ahead to six months of great moments ripe for the picking. Even the hackers.
Lee's absurdity unabsurded in San Francisco a few games later and the Rangers went on to lose the World Series. I have no barometer of how Rangers fans feel about this or the trade that shipped him to Texas. But as someone on the outside looking in, I'm glad he wore a Rangers uniform if only for this one at bat.