NEW YORK - After all these years, and all those home runs, who knew that Charlie Manuel had a secret, little pet name for Ryan Howard?
"That's why I call him the Big Piece," Manuel said after watching his sizzling cleanup man belt two home runs and drive in five runs in the Phillies' 6-2 win over the New York Mets today at Citi Field.
"He was the game."
There was no disputing Howard's importance in the Phils' 11th win in their last 13 games, but there was another significant contributor in this victory, and he deserves a nickname, too.
If Howard is the Big Piece, then Cliff Lee has to be the Big Pickup.
The lefthander did not allow an earned run in seven walk-free innings as he won his fifth straight start since the Phils traded for him July 29.
Remember last year, when everyone in baseball gushed about the work CC Sabathia did after being traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers?
Well, through his first five starts with the Phillies, Lee, who was also traded by the Indians the year after winning the American League Cy Young Award, has been better than Sabathia was in his first five starts with the Brewers.
Sabathia went 4-0 (the Brewers were 4-1 as a team) in his first five starts with Milwaukee. In 392/3 innings, he allowed just 29 hits and 8 earned runs for an ERA of 1.82. He struck out 34 and walked 10 over that span.
Through five starts with the Phils, Lee is 5-0. In 40 innings, he has allowed 24 hits and 3 earned runs for an ERA of 0.68. He has struck out 39 and walked 6.
A Big Pickup, indeed.
"That's a good piece for them going forward," acknowledged Mets manager Jerry Manuel.
How big a boost has Lee given the Phils?
"About 20 games worth," Charlie Manuel said. "He definitely makes us real good. This is the best rotation we've had since I've been here."
Lee is the first Phillies pitcher to win his first five starts with the club since Marty Bystrom in 1980. The Phils won the World Series that year. They won it again last year and are pushing for their third straight National League East title. Barring a collapse like the ones the Mets experienced in 2007 and 2008, the Phils are headed for the postseason again, and Lee is looking like the guy they want starting the first game of the division series.
"We're not there yet," Manuel said. "We don't think that way.
"At this time of year, this is how we want to play, how we need to play. We need to win as many games as possible. We're trying to win our division. The more we win now is tremendous."
Lee displayed excellent composure in this win. Staked to a 3-0 lead on Howard's three-run homer in the top of the first, he saw the Mets score quickly as leadoff man Angel Pagan rounded the bases on a double error by Chase Utley. Two batters later, Gary Sheffield blooped a ball down the right-field line. It eluded Jayson Werth and went for a triple. Sheffield then scored on a sacrifice fly.
Some pitchers might have been unnerved by an inning in which they were charged with two unearned runs. Lee cleared the rough spot with skill and got better as the game went on. He allowed six hits and struck out five.
"Stuff-wise, I've seen him better," Manuel said. "At the same time, he was real good. He stayed in there and battled."
Catcher Paul Bako was impressed.
"From the third or fourth inning on, he started nailing the inside corner, and that makes him awfully tough," Bako said. "With as many strikes as he throws and as many weapons as he has, it's a lot of fun to catch him. He throws a lot of fastballs and that's refreshing. He goes right at hitters."
Lee conceded that NL lineups, with batting pitchers and no designated hitter, are easier to navigate than AL lineups. But his success clearly isn't a product of changing leagues. He did go 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA in the AL in 2008, and he won his last three starts with Cleveland this season, giving up just four earned runs in 25 innings.
"The lineups here are deeper because the pitcher doesn't hit. That's a fact," Lee said. "But that doesn't mean I can throw the ball down the middle of the plate. They're still major-league hitters getting paid to hit. I'm still out there trying to force hitters to swing the bat and give my team a chance to win."
Lee did that (again) today and was supported by Howard, who has eight homers and 22 RBIs in his last 11 games.
The Big Piece, indeed.
"That's what [Manuel] calls me," Howard said with a laugh. "I don't knock it. I just rock it."