For as long as he’s been in the league, Cliff Lee’s made it his mission to bend games to his will. He was in and out of Seattle in the blink of an eye three years ago, and Mike Carp still remembers getting that feeling when he played behind him.
Over his past four starts coming into Fenway Park Tuesday night, the Phillies’ Lee manhandled every team he faced, leaving nothing but sawdust after buzzing through the Giants, Diamondbacks, Reds, and Marlins. He had gone at least seven innings in all of those outings, but between them, all they could muster against the methodical lefty was four runs.
Considering the Red Sox staged a hit parade the night before at the expense of the Phillies’ 24-year old minor league call-up Tyler Cloyd, Lee was precisely the pitcher they next wanted on the mound.
It wasn’t just his 4-1 record on the road or his 4-1 record after Philadelphia losses.
It was the message he sent with every pitch.
“He wants to control the game,” the Sox’ Carp said.
In a 3-1 win over Boston he allowed only one run over eight innings, sapping the power from a lineup that had flexed its muscles during a four-game winning streak. Lee (6-2) finished with eight strikeouts, hanging up a K in each of the first five innings. From the second to the seventh he retired 18 of the 19 batters he faced. After giving up an RBI single to Dustin Pedroia in the first that tied it at 1, he made sure scoring opportunities were scarce.
“That’s the reason why he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball,” Pedroia said. “He was pretty dominant. You want to be aggressive, but he’s throwing strikes that are located and in areas that if you swing early in the count on, you’re not going to do damage or square the ball up. You’ve got to tip your hat sometimes. He threw the ball great.”
“You wouldn’t know if it was 2007 or 2013 tonight the way he threw,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “He was strong throughout, much like we’ve seen him in the past. He can throw four pitches for strikes, fastballs to both sides of the plate. The one thing that you can see unfold a little bit was a clear-cut plan against us. He saved his curveball until the second time through the order just to be able to disrupt some timing a little bit further. But still, his fastball location is his trademark and he was sharp tonight.”
Still licking the wounds from his past three starts, Ryan Dempster knew what he was facing. Lee was coming off his 12th career shutout, in which he was generous enough to grant the Marlins three hits. Over his previous three starts, Dempster had allowed 20 hits and 15 earned runs.
“You can’t make mistakes,” Dempster said.
The task of going inning-for-inning with the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner was a tall one, but for most of Dempster’s seven innings, he made it a battle. He put a leash on the fastball that had been hard to control in recent starts and used his offspeed pitches to finish off hitters. He fanned Ryan Howard with his splitter and slider for two of his four strikeouts. They became his out pitches.
With the Sox lineup struggling to muster anything against Lee, Dempster kept the game tight. In the seventh inning, though, as he slowly creeped toward his final total of 98 pitches, it became clear that his tank was approaching empty. The leadoff single he gave up to John Mayberry Jr. allowed the Phillies to cobble together a run. Freddy Galvis moved him over with a sacrifice bunt, and Erik Kratz drove him in with a single up the middle to make it 2-1. Those were all the runs Lee would need.
“Cliff Lee’s tough,” Dempster said. “When you’re going to go out there and match up against him, you can’t make many mistakes. I made a couple tonight, it cost us a couple runs, and he did a good job pitching against us.”
Farrell could only describe it as “a classic pitcher’s duel.”
Under Farrell, the Sox have taken pleasure in squeezing as many pitches out of an opposing starter as possible, pouncing on counts in their advantage until the other side has no choice but to tag in a reliever. For as deep as Lee went into the game, going at least seven innings for the ninth time in his 11 starts this season, he only needed 95 pitches.
“We do a good job usually of grinding at-bats and working the count,” said catcher David Ross. “It’s tough [against] him. He’s throwing a lot of strikes and balls in the zone. And when you’re not on and you’re missing them, he’s tough to beat.”
If there was a pitcher who could defuse a lineup that had piled up 33 runs in the five games since returning from a 10-day road trip, it was Lee.
“That’s the one way to attack our approach is to pitch to quality locations early and often and he’s a guy that can do that,” Farrell said. “I think you saw us respond by trying to go earlier in the count with some swings and you’ve got to tip your hat where it’s due.”
Under normal circumstances, Ross’s eyes light up when he sees a strike-thrower on the mound.
“I like to swing,” he said.
But Lee’s a different breed.
“He can really criss-cross that cutter and that sinker in to righties and keeps you off balance,” Ross said. “He’s coming right at you.”
Of his 95 pitches, 69 went for strikes. He continually threw the Sox in a hole and kept them there with 19 first-pitch strikes to the 28 batters he faced. He rarely let them get so much as a glimpse of a hitter’s count, never letting an at-bat get to 3-and-0. The Sox clubhouse was an echo chamber in the aftermath of it all.
“He pounds the zone,” Ross said.
“He attacks the strike zone,” Pedroia said.
“He pounded the strike zone,” David Ortiz said.
In bottling up the Sox, it felt like Lee was making an eight-inning power play.
“He’s probably like that every start,” Pedroia said. “There’s a reason why he’s one of the best pitchers. He attacks the zone. He hides the ball well. He’s pretty darn tough.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.