Cliff Lee always makes game look fun
HITTERS PITCHING. Pitchers hitting. Cats sleeping with dogs. After Wilson Valdez won Wednesday's game with his arm but before Cliff Lee broke open yesterday's game with his bat, someone suggested that baseball's next innovation should be developing back-of-the roster players who can do both.
Cats sleeping with dogs.
After Wilson Valdez won Wednesday's game with his arm but before Cliff Lee broke open yesterday's game with his bat, someone suggested that baseball's next innovation should be developing back-of-the roster players who can do both.
But until then, we have Valdez and Lee, one a valued scrub, the other a beloved star, each with a flair for the dramatic, the unexpected, the delicious.
"This game is crazy," Ryan Howard said after Lee pitched, hit and fielded his team to a 10-4 victory over the Reds yesterday afternoon in the final game of a successful, nine-game homestand. "You never know what you're going to see. For Wilson to do what he did [Wednesday] night, and Cliff to do that today - and stealing a base the last time - this game is just full of surprises."
Earlier yesterday (and the night before), Valdez played the first 18 innings at second base, had a double, and pitched a scoreless 19th in a 5-4 win over snakebit Cincy. He even shook off a sign in the inning, which forced Howard to hide a belly laugh with his big glove. Anyway, Valdez' reward was another nine in the field hours later, this time playing third base and batting seventh, two spots ahead of Lee.
For most of the 162 games in the season, details change but the blueprint is recognizable. You grind it out, you play it out and as Lee said yesterday, the team with the most facets covered usually wins the most games.
But every now and then the matrix burps, and you get a stretch like the one that extended hours from midnight to just after 4 p.m. yesterday, when unimaginable became unlikely and then, well, seemingly unavoidable.
So there was Valdez at second base in the sixth inning of a 4-4 tie yesterday, taking his lead as Lee stepped in to face Reds reliever Daryl Thompson with the bases loaded and nobody out. Seconds before, manager Charlie Manuel had toyed with the idea of having Lee squeeze home the go-ahead run, but when Dane Sardinha walked to load the bases, he dismissed it.
"He likes to hit and he wants to be a good hitter," Manuel said. "When he gets in there for BP, he likes to see how far he can hit the ball. He takes a very aggressive cut in the game."
Lee one-bounced the first pitch he saw over the centerfield wall, regaining a lead he had lost in the top of the inning when Jay Bruce took him deep. One inning later - after issuing the hairy eyeball to home plate umpire Dan Bellino after a high strike call - Lee padded that lead with a sharp RBI single to center.
He also left his feet to snare a high bouncer in the third inning, throwing the ball to first almost before landing. In his previous start, a 2-0 shutout of Texas on Saturday, he stole a base and took a line drive off the back of his shoulder, waving off trainer Scott Sheridan before he could get out of the dugout.
These are the anecdotes that best explain why people in this town respect and revere Roy Halladay but absolutely gush over their prodigal lefty. Halladay often makes it look easy. Lee almost as often makes it look fun. The no-look backhand stab in the 2009 World Series. The casual underhanded catch of a pop-up in the same game. A stolen base Saturday night. His aerodynamic snare of Homer Bailey's back-to-the box bouncer yesterday.
"I enjoy playing all aspects of the game," Lee said. "Playing in the National League makes you feel more like a baseball player instead of just a pitcher. It's one of the reasons I came here. Having to run bases. Having to hit. Fielding bunts, laying down bunts. I enjoy all of it. And I try to take it serious."
It's an odd but understandable use of the word. Lee's at-bats, said Raul Ibanez, are as focused as his effort on the mound. But maybe because of how involved that focus enables him to be, there is this other image of the lefty, a smirk, a smile, the aura not of a surgeon as much as a riverboat gambler. He allowed himself a laugh after his stolen base. When he stepped back on the mound after that line drive hit him in that game, he still wore that bemused smirk of his.
When Chase Utley returned to the lineup early this week, there was talk of the intangibles he would bring, about confidence seeping throughout the lineup. Cliff Lee didn't have his best game on the hill yesterday, but his bat broke the dam, triggered the runaway victory, made Valdez' effort the night before seem even more worthwhile.
Three outs recorded by an infielder-turned-pitcher. Three runs batted in by a pitcher to break up a tie game. Seriously, a whole lot of fun.
"Very interesting," Howard said. "I mean, you're going to have those hard, grind-it games. And then you're going to have those games where you see something you absolutely never encountered and never expect."
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