ANYONE WHO moves to Philadelphia is destined to experience a number of firsts. First cheesesteak. First traffic jam on the Schuylkill Expressway. First political-corruption trial. But few rites of passage are more eye-opening than one's first experience with sports panic. In a way, Cliff Lee got off easy during his first go-around. With the Phillies' struggles at closing out games and hitting with runners in scoring position providing two significant outlets for fans to channel their ever-present worry, the 17 runs the team's marquee midseason acquisition had allowed in his previous three outings seemed a distant third on the hierarchy of distress.
And after Lee's complete-game shutout in a 5-0 win over the Washington Nationals last night, it seems as if it will remain that way.
"I expect to be successful every time I take the mound,'' said the lefthander, who allowed six hits and struck out nine while throwing 124 pitches in his third complete game since joining the Phillies. "It's up for you guys to formulate an opinion on whether I've got 'it' back or whatever. I feel confident every time I take the mound. I expect to win, I expect to get deep into games, and I expect to put up zeroes."
Lee did all three last night, thanks to a renewed emphasis on his breaking pitches, which he admitted he had strayed from while allowing 17 runs in 15 innings in his last three starts.
Prior to the game, manager Charlie Manuel was asked if he was concerned about the three less-than-stellar outings by Lee, who went 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in his first five starts with the Phillies. While Manuel acknowledged that Lee, who entered the night having thrown 207 innings, might benefit from an extra day or 2 of rest, he couched his summation, saying, "We'll see how he does tonight."
After a three-run double by Carlos Ruiz helped give the Phillies a 5-0 lead in the second inning, Lee cruised, heavily utilizing the hard slider that was often present during his early run of success with the team.
He was aided by some awful baserunning by the Nationals in the third, when Josh Bard was thrown out attempting to move from second to third on a sharp grounder to second with no outs, and Alberto Gonzalez was later struck by a groundball on the basepaths, ending the frame. But after issuing an uncharacteristic three walks in the fourth inning - Lee hadn't walked a batter in his previous five starts - he cruised, striking out Bard with two outs and the bases loaded, then retiring 14 of the final 17 batters he faced.
"I think my past few outings I got a little fastball-happy," said Lee, who improved to 7-2 with a 2.67 ERA in nine starts for the Phillies. "Obviously I gave up hits and runs because of that, so today I tried to be a little more conscious of mixing speeds and it seemed to work. That's the name of the game. You've got to mix speed, you've got to mix location and try to be as unpredictable as possible."
With the victory, the Phillies maintained their seven-game lead over Florida (7 1/2 over Atlanta) in the NL East.
Offensively, Ruiz went 2-for-4 with two doubles and is now hitting .364 with seven home runs and 13 RBI over the last 31 days. Jimmy Rollins went 2-for-4 and has recorded multiple hits in four of his last six games.
But as has been the case for most of the second half of the season, the story was starting pitching. In their last three games, all victories, Phillies starters have allowed just two runs in 24 1/3 innings. Their 1-0 win over the Mets in the nightcap of Sunday's doubleheader and their 5-0 win last night mark the first time they have posted back-to-back shutouts since April 27-28, 2003. The fact that the last three games have been started by pitchers who were not in the rotation at the start of the season - Kyle Kendrick, Pedro Martinez and Lee - underscores the depth the team has.
"I don't give a damn who throws them," Manuel said.
While a lot of attention has been paid to teams like the Giants and Cardinals, both of whom have two Cy Young candidates at the top of the rotation, the Phillies have established themselves as one of the deepest starting pitching corps in the league.
"I think, from 1 to 5, we're as good as anybody," Lee said. "I don't think you necessarily have to have a 1-2 punch. I think we've got a 1-2-3-4-5 punch. It's never-ending."
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.