For seven innings of Wednesday night’s opening game of the 2009 World Series, the hotly anticipated matchup of left-handed aces and former Cleveland Indians teammates lived up to its billing, but in the end there was just Cliff Lee.
Lee, who shutout the Rockies in the first postseason start of his career in Game One of this year’s NLDS and entered the game having allowed just two earned runs in 24 1/3 innings this postseason, was simply dominant. On a cold, wet night in the Bronx, Lee was quick, sharp, almost robotic in his efficiency, and seemed utterly indifferent to significance of the game.
In his first two innings of work he allowed just a Jorge Posada single and struck out four. After allowing another hit in the third, a two-out double by Derek Jeter, he struck out Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada in order in the fourth. For both Teixeira and Rodriguez it was their second strikeout in as many at-bats against Lee.
The Yankees got the leadoff batter on in the fifth on a Hideki Matsui single, but he was promptly erased by an unusual double play on a sinking flare off the bat of Robinson Cano to Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. Rather than charge the ball to catch it chest-high, Rollins stayed back on the ball in an apparent attempt to snag the short hop and turn a conventional double play. After gloving the ball, Rollins did just that, stepping on second and firing to first, but Cano beat the throw. The trick was that Rollins actually caught the ball on the fly, thus his throw to first doubled off Matsui. It took the umpires a while to figure that out, but after huddling up they eventually got the call right.
Lee pitched around a Johnny Damon single in the seventh, then didn’t allow another baserunner until the ninth.
Meanwhile, CC Sabathia, after surviving a two-out bases-loaded jam in the first, nearly matched Lee, with two crucial exceptions. With two outs in the third, Chase Utley battled Sabathia for nine pitches. The last was a knee-high fastball that was supposed to be in, but drifted over the plate, allowing Utley to deposit it in the first few rows of the right-field box seats to give the Phillies an early 1-0 lead. The home run was a short-porch shot to be sure, but likely would have been out of the old Stadium as well.
Utley’s next at-bat came with one out in the sixth. Sabathia had retired every man he faced since Utley’s home run and got two quick called strikes on Utley, who then fouled off the third pitch. Sabathia’s fourth offering was a thigh-high fastball that was supposed to be inside, but drifted over the plate, allowing Utley to deposit it in the first few rows of the right-field bleachers, a no-doubter that gave the Phillies a 2-0 lead. Given Lee’s dominance and the fact that the Yankees were down to their last nine outs, that deficit felt much larger than it actually was.
As if to accentuate his command of the game, Lee got Johnny Damon to hit a badminton birdie back to the mound in the bottom of the sixth. Lee barely moved his feet to catch Damon’s floater. He simply stuck out his glove and made a casual, one-handed catch as if he was receiving a return throw from his catcher. The next inning, Jorge Posada hit a chopper to the first-base side of the mound. Rather than flip it to first base, Lee ran directly at Posada in a play reminiscent of the last out of the 2003 World Series, and rather than tag Posada on the chest or stomach with two hands, Lee gave the hot-headed Yankee catcher a roundhouse pat on the rear end to retire him. In the next frame, Robinson Cano led off with a hard hopper that Lee casually caught blindly behind his back. It was Cliff Lee’s night, the Yankees and the 50,207 fans in the stands were merely supporting players, and mild-mannered ones at that.
Other than Utley’s two homers, the Phillies managed just two hits against CC Sabathia, one of them a Ryan Howard double in the first inning, but they worked deep counts, drew three walks, and bounced the Yankee ace from the game after he threw 117 pitches in seven innings. That allowed the Phills to sink their teeth into the Yankees’ suddenly shaky middle relief corps.
Phil Hughes was the first lamb to the slaughter. He started the eighth by walking Jimmy Rollins on eight pitches and Shane Victorino on seven more before getting a quick hook. Damaso Marte came on and struck out Utley and got Howard to fly out, but David Robertson, in to face the righty Jason Werth, loaded the bases on a four-pitch walk, then gave up a two-run single to Raul Ibañez that doubled the Phillies’ lead. Brian Bruney, who hadn’t seen game action since the regular season, got two quick outs in the ninth, but Rollins reached on a slow roller that stopped short of Alex Rodriguez on the infield grass, and Victorino followed with an RBI single. Joe Girardi then turned to Phil Coke to face Utley and Howard. Coke fell behind Utley 3-1 before getting him to fly out, then Howard doubled into the right-field corner, plating Rollins to increase the lead to 6-0.
Those insurance runs were killers, particularly after Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon opened the ninth with singles off Lee that otherwise would have given the Yankees hope of yet another comeback. The shutout was lost when Rollins threw wild to first base trying to turn Mark Teixeira’s ensuing grounder into a double play, but Lee stopped the Yankees there by striking out Rodriguez and Posada on a total of eight pitches to give the Phillies a 6-1 win and an early 1-0 lead in the Series.