At 8:06 in the East last night, Clifton Phifer Lee, of the Benton, Ark., Lees, a man given to raging superstitions, runs to the mound and, as is his habit to begin each inning, tenderly rakes the dirt with his cleats, windmills both arms three vigorous times, turns to face second base, and fires a phantom pitch there.
And then, ritual complete, he turns around and sets about turning the Los Angeles Dodgers around. Also, inside out. And every which way but loose.
Cliff Lee pitches like a man late for a date.
Get the ball. Throw the ball. Swing and miss. Next.
Rawboned and lanky, the hired lefthanded gun of the Phillies, on this gelid October evening, is seeking to get his team halfway to the World Series, and they oblige by presenting him with four runs of Thunder Ball in their very first at-bats.
Shane Victorino slashes a second-pitch single to right, Chase Utley, badly in need of a hit, gets one, and he and Victorino come blazing home when Ryan Howard rips a line drive that dies in the right field corner.
The Big Bopper belly flops safely into third, and as he is running out that triple, it strikes you that there was a time when, several pounds ago, he resembled a rhino and now is almost cheetah-like.
Enter Jayson Werth. Here is a man capable of lunging, hopelessly overmatched futility on one swing, and then a thermonuclear detonation the next. This time it's a 5-megaton blast, the ball climbing in a majestic arc and landing at the back of the greenery in center field. Chopped up into singles, it would be a week's worth of hits.
To reprise the Fightin's first, then: single, single, triple, homer. And Lee finds himself awash in an embarrassment of riches.
And though he doesn't want to be a pig about it, more runs couldn't, you know, like, hurt. So the Phillies oblige, and gift him with two more in the second inning, Carlos Ruiz starting it with a ringing double in the gap, then scoring on Rollins' double . . . and a pause here for a word in behalf of Ruiz.
In a lineup of marquee names, he is undervalued and underappreciated and generally overlooked. He is agile behind the plate, has the trust of the pitchers, and can win a game with his glove, or arm, or bat. Or all of the above. And his hits seem to come at the most opportune moments.
Last night, Randy Wolf, the ex-Phillie now toiling for L.A., said of Chooch: "He's a Dodger killer."
Which is why the concern is thick in the fourth inning when Ruiz catches a load of shrapnel disguised as a foul tip. The medicos rush to him. He stays down. First rule of this brutal meat grinder of a position: Shake it off.
And gets up out of the dirt and goes back to work, back in lockstep with his pitcher. This is a beautiful thing to watch when it is right, when pitcher and catcher are in unison, the ESP between them flowing in currents.
Ruiz doesn't have many fingers to wigwag because there are no trick pitches in the Cliff Lee repertoire, only an economy of offerings - a fastball that is just fast enough, and the occasional semi-breaking ball. He pitches without fear, but is not foolhardy. He pitches inside, which many southpaws are loath to do, and this automatically expands his kill zone.
The Fightin's love playing behind him because he pitches fast-break baseball, and they aren't left to stare mournfully at their feet while the pitcher stops and starts his way into deep counts.
And he likes to finish what he starts. Given the fragility of the Phillies' bullpen, that is a comforting thought.
Lee is in the process of compiling a glittering postseason reputation. If he permits more than a run a game, it's a surprise. This night, in eight innings, he permits zero.
He is their bona-fide stopper, and one reason, maybe the key one, that the Phillies are about to repeat.