Cliff Lee leads Rangers, guns blazing

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When Cliff Lee walked into the Texas Rangers' clubhouse for the first time on that hot July day, he might as well have slung open the doors wearing a cocked cowboy hat, pointing a six-shooter and going by the name John Wayne.

A new sheriff was in town.

"A bona-fide ace," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "One of the best pitchers in the game."

Before Lee's arrival, the Rangers' rotation had pitched surprisingly well and the team had built a 4½-game cushion in the American League West, so Lee was no savior. But there's no escaping this: The staff boasted no postseason experience and its best pitcher going, lefty C.J. Wilson, was a former bullpen hand whose durability and productivity down the stretch remained something of a mystery.

So the Rangers, then a bankrupt franchise and unaware which way a brewing ownership battle would go, outfoxed the New York Yankees to acquire the pinpoint lefty who had brilliantly pitched the Philadelphia Phillies to the brink of a World Series title one year ago.

"I am sure he is their anchor," Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I am certain their other [pitchers] have talked to him about all of this. I'm sure he's had some great words for them. And then it's going to come down to setting the example, which I know he's going to want to do."

Texas manager Ron Washington didn't think twice about his Game 1 starter for Wednesday afternoon's American League Division Series opener against the AL East champion Rays. It didn't matter that Wilson, in some ways Lee's protégé, had more wins and was the more effective dealer in the final two months.

These playoffs are why the Rangers gambled on Lee. It doesn't matter that he could join Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and the rest of the Yankees in the offseason when he becomes the top free agent on the market.

For now, Lee is the Rangers' hired gun acquired to capture the team's first playoff series in its 38 years of existence. From there, who knows what might happen?

Pressure? Lee remains relaxed.

"You can call it pressure. Call it what you want," he said. "But I'm not nervous or worried or any of those kinds of words that would go along with pressure. I'm more confident and excited and anxious.

"I expect to be successful."

Lee (12-9, 3.18) will duel hard-throwing lefty David Price (19-6, 2.72), a Cy Young Award candidate whose postseason experience amounts to 5 2/3 innings of relief work as a rookie in the Rays' World Series run in 2008. The 6-foot-6 25-year-old quickly blossomed into their staff ace.

"He may have not had as much experience as Cliff has had to this point," Maddon said, "but I think he's right there with him in regards to his stuff."

If this best-of-five series goes the distance, Lee and Wright are scheduled for a do-or-die faceoff.

"The first game is a big one," Lee said. "You want to set the tone."

The Rays' lineup is a strange concoction. Tampa Bay has found ways to defeat Lee in all three matchups this season, twice in May when Lee pitched for the Seattle Mariners. In the three losses, Lee pitched 23 2/3 of a possible 27 innings.

One of his losses with Seattle was by a score of 2-1. Pitching for Texas in August, Lee lost a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth -- with Price having left in the sixth -- when his defense failed him.

"We've been very fortunate," Rays second baseman Sean Rodriguez said.

"Hopefully, we just keep finding a way to get guys on, because if you get guys on, I guess that's when he gets a little bit uncomfortable. Then again, not really. He's good."

On paper, the Rays' lineup -- with its stunningly low .247 team batting average but a high propensity for drawing walks and stealing bases to manufacture runs -- would seem to play into Lee's strengths.

He "pounds the zone," as every manager, player and analyst will tell you. He simply doesn't walk anybody, allowing a remarkable 16 free passes (plus two intentional walks) in 212 1/3 innings.

"We know we have to come out and swing the bats against him," said Carl Crawford, the Rays' only .300 hitter this year. "We know he's not going to walk too many guys, and then he gets close calls, also. We know we're not going to come up there trying to draw walks."

That Lee has only 12 victories is almost as unbelievable as his 10.3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the second-best mark in baseball since 1900. His August took him out of Cy Young contention. He went from Aug. 6 to Sept. 12 without a victory and saw his ERA bloat from 2.40 to 3.37 before finally missing some time because of a back ailment that wrenched his delivery.

On Tuesday, the day before he takes the mound for the second postseason of his career and the Rangers' first in 11 seasons, Lee said all systems are go.

"The back thing is gone. I'm not even doing treatment on it anymore," he said. "I feel 100 percent healthy and ready to go out there and pitch."

In other words, Lee's six-shooter is fully loaded.

Jeff Caplan covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.