Lee brings impossible within reach

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Thursday night is why the Texas Rangers traded for Cliff Lee.

It was the Rangers against the team chasing them in the AL West standings. It was ace versus ace. It was a tight game from start to finish. It was the kind of game a team has to win in order to knock off a perennial power.

A large crowd -- nearly 40,000 of them, including 8,600 walkups -- showed up trying to buy into the idea that the Rangers have staying power this season. They wanted yet another sign that this team, unlike previous versions, won't wilt in the sweltering Texas heat. They are hoping that the Rangers, a team with one playoff win in its history and a club that hasn't made the postseason since Bill Clinton was in office, could find a way to punch a ticket to the postseason.

Lee sure made it seem possible Thursday. He earned his first victory as a Ranger, going 8 1/3 innings in a 3-2 win to give Texas a six-game lead in the AL West. It's the club's largest division lead since finishing the 1999 season with an eight-game advantage. And good news for the Rangers: Lee should pitch at least three more times in the regular season against the Angels, should the rotation hold form.

"That's what you want out of your ace," Michael Young said. "He was able to grind it out. Jered Weaver pitched well, and he's not easy to beat. But Cliff went deep in the game and got the job done. He's done that every since we got him. He pitches fast, he's efficient and he pitches deep in games."

The crowd chanted, 'Beat LA. Beat LA,' for the entire ninth inning and erupted when closer Neftali Feliz got No. 5 hitter Mike Napoli for the final out. It sure seemed like a lot was at stake for a late July baseball series.

And to think that this was the day before Jerry Jones officially opens Dallas Cowboys training camp. It didn't seem that was on anyone's mind at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Thursday. Too many times, the end of July marks the beginning of football season and the end of baseball season. That isn't the case this year.

"The crowd was great out there," David Murphy said. "It was big to get the first game of the series. But the great thing about this team is that we won't worry about that anymore. We'll move on to the next game and the next one after that."

Lee walked into the Rangers clubhouse with shaving cream still stuck to his uniform.

"How did this happen?" Lee said to no one in particular as he had plenty of energy to clean off his hat and lob his uniform into a waiting laundry bin. "I'll take this as long as it means we're winning."

Lee admitted that he wasn't at his best Thursday. He went nine innings in Boston last weekend, but got a no-decision when the Rangers couldn't provide him enough run support. That night, he had pinpoint control. He wasn't quite as accurate against the Angels.

"I had to battle a little more tonight, to be honest with you," Lee said. "My location wasn't as good as it was in Boston. I felt like I was locating fastballs really well the other night in Boston, and that's the reason I threw so many fastballs. Tonight, I had to mix it up a little bit more. I found myself behind in the count a few more times and was able to get some outs. I threw more balls than I would have liked to, but it was a game I had to battle and make some pitches when I was behind in the count."

There was one thing that Lee couldn't do: Persuade his manager to let him finish out the game.

Ron Washington, whose long day started with a 9:30 a.m. appearance in bankruptcy court and ended with a hug from bench coach Jackie Moore just before 10 p.m., decided after the eighth inning that he wanted Lee to pitch to left-handed hitting Bobby Abreu to start the ninth. After that, Washington was going with closer Neftali Feliz against cleanup hitter Torii Hunter and first baseman Mike Napoli.

"He said, 'I got this,'" Washington said. "But I told him, 'You've done enough.'

Lee tried a few times to change his manager's mind. But to no avail. He told him he thought he could get the next few guys and Washington insisted he was going to his closer.

"I guess coming out is better than staying out there and giving up a run or two," Lee said. "I don't think that was going to happen, but that's Wash's job is to make those decisions, and you've got to respect that."

Lee's ability to go deep into games consistently has caused a ripple effect on the team. It saves a bullpen that was the most worked in the major leagues at the All-Star break. His pitch count, which didn't even hit triple digits Thursday, means he goes out and throws quick innings, allowing the defense behind him to stay alert and get out of the heat quickly. They rewarded him Thursday.

Michael Young made a diving stab to end the sixth. Ian Kinsler slid over to a ball deep in the hole and got an out. Josh Hamilton sprinted to a tailing fly ball in the ninth for Lee's final out. Nelson Cruz made a catch against the wall on a long fly ball in the fourth and again on Hunter's line drive in the ninth.

"There were definitely some great plays," Lee said. "Even the play that Hamilton almost made in the fifth, that would have been a heck of a play too. There were some great plays all night. It was some good defense out there for sure."

Young, who also praised the defense and the crowd, was asked if Thursday's game was a playoff atmosphere.

"I wouldn't know," he said.

The team leader who broke into the majors with the Rangers had never played in a postseason game.

"But those are fun games," Young said. "It's two good pitchers going at it. Every at-bat is big, every pitch is big. The game means something. You want to play in those games. Our pitcher got it done."

He did. It's why the Rangers traded for Lee in the first place.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.