Good luck, Astros: Now you get Lee

OK, maybe I was wrong.

This is what will be difficult about facing the Phillies this year: You actually scratch a run across Roy Halladay, stretch your lead to four runs against their shaky bullpen, and then suffer a devastating loss in the bottom of the ninth.

Your reward? Cliff Lee the next day.

With Halladay and Lee going back-to-back in the rotation, opponents will often go consecutive games without receiving a free pass. The two combined to walk just 48 hitters last season, which sounds impressive, but even more so when I tell you Nolan Ryan once walked 44 batters in a month.

Needless to say, those two have a little different approach to pitching than Ryan, who would never, ever gave in to a hitter. It was max effort on every pitch. Halladay and Lee, on the other hand, often seem to be on cruise control. They are so smooth and calm with their deliveries like they’re having a catch in the backyard, but they never want to help the opponent with a free base. Lee had a quote last year that he’d like to go an entire season without walking anybody. I think he was serious.

Lee throws harder than he used to. When he came up with Cleveland, he threw 87-88. In his Cy Young season of 2008, his fastball averaged 90.5 mph. The past two seasons, he’s increased that velocity to a tick over 91. At the same time, his control has improved, from 4.1 BB/9 as a rookie to an otherwordly 0.8 in 2010 -- giving him the second-best strikeout/walk ratio of any starting pitcher in history (behind only Bret Saberhagen in 1994).

If there’s one flaw in his approach, it’s maybe that he throws too many strikes. He allowed the most hits in the majors in 2009 (245) and has been about a hit-an-inning guy throughout his career. It will also be interesting to see how he does in Philly. Remember that in his first stint there he didn’t really dominate until the postseason; he posted a 3.39 ERA in 12 starts and gave up seven home runs in 79 2/3 innings. His 3.98 ERA with the Rangers in 15 starts was attributed to a balky back, but The Ballpark in Arlington, like Citizens Bank Park, is much more prone to allowing home runs than Cleveland or Seattle.

That’s nitpicking. I think Lee is poised to have an excellent year, maybe getting his ERA under 3.00 for the second time in his career. And no doubt give the Phillies the strong likelihood of two starters finishing in the top-five of the Cy Young voting. That’s actually happened several times in the wild-card era (note: we’re counting relievers):

2009 Cardinals: Chris Carpenter (2), Adam Wainwright (3)

2007 Indians: CC Sabathia (1), Fausto Carmona (4)

2005 Astros: Roger Clemens (3), Roy Oswalt (4)

2004 Red Sox: Curt Schilling (2), Pedro Martinez (4)

2004 Astros: Clemens (1), Oswalt (3)

2002 Red Sox: Martinez (2), Derek Lowe (3)

2002 Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson (1), Schilling (2)

2001 Mariners: Freddy Garcia (3), Jamie Moyer (4)

2001 Diamondbacks: Johnson (1), Schilling (2)

2000 Braves: Tom Glavine (2), Greg Maddux (3)

1999 Astros: Mike Hampton (2), Jose Lima (4)

1998 Yankees: David Wells (3), David Cone (4)

1998 Braves: Maddux and John Smoltz (4)

1997 Braves: Maddux (2), Denny Neagle (3)

1995 Braves: Maddux (1), Glavine (3)

1995 Dodgers: Hideo Nomo (4), Ramon Martinez (5)

Of course, what makes the Phillies so tough isn’t their top two, but their top four. In 2010, Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Cole Hamels each posted an ERA below 3.50 and a strikeout rate of 7.0 per nine innings or better. No team has ever done that before.

So good luck to the Astros. Maybe they can scratch a run off Lee on Saturday.

And then get to face Oswalt on Sunday.