ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Cliff Lee's Game 5 start here in sunny Florida may determine more than whether the Rangers play future games in 2010. It could also help decide if Lee has a future in Texas beyond this postseason.
Lee, who lives in Arkansas in the offseason, will have many suitors in free agency. And they will bring pots of gold with them in an effort to lure one of the top pitchers in the game.
The Rangers' new ownership has said it wants to keep Lee, but he will have plenty of options. No doubt the New York Yankees are already preparing their sales pitch, one that could get even more enticing should they win a second consecutive World Series.
If Lee wins a winner-take-all Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Rangers head to the American League Championship Series and get the opportunity to face off against one of baseball's traditional powers on the biggest stage the franchise has ever set foot on. Lee would be poised to pitch Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. Think of the difference for Lee if he's pitching in that game for the Rangers rather than watching on TV and wondering how he might look in pinstripes.
Lee has done a good job of not allowing his contract status to dominate the playoff talk about him. When he was asked before Game 1 about staying in Texas, he was careful, as he put it, not to "corner" himself.
"It's been a good ride so far and, yeah, I could see myself being here in the future," Lee said then. "But, only time will tell on that. I definitely enjoy it here and it looks like it's going to be a good team for years to come and that's what I want to be a part of."
Then Lee added this: "Hopefully, we do some damage here in the postseason, win the World Series, and that will make things a lot easier for me."
Lee now has a direct hand in determining that last part. He can't wait for the opportunity.
"It's down to one game to decide whether we move on," Lee said after the Rangers lost Game 4 on Sunday. "This is exactly where I want to be, in a situation like this."
It's where the Rangers want Lee, too.
"This is why we got him, for this type of game," manager Ron Washington said. "We couldn't have a better guy on the mound."
The Rangers need Lee to keep his sterling postseason record alive. He's now 5-0 in the playoffs with a 1.52 ERA in six starts. That included a Game 1 victory in Tampa on Wednesday.
Lee wiggled out of a first-inning jam -- a disputed foul-tip call on Carlos Pena helped -- before going seven innings and allowing just one run. After giving up a leadoff double in the second, Lee retired the next 12 batters he faced. His only mistake was a fastball up to Ben Zobrist, who hit it out for a solo homer. But the Rangers were comfortably in front by then.
Lee threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of the 27 hitters he faced, allowing him to mix his pitches and be aggressive when needed. He finished with 10 strikeouts and no walks.
He won't be changing that game plan Tuesday.
"I will make the exact same pitches the whole game," Lee said, acknowledging, of course, that his pitch sequence could change. "Obviously, I will have a game plan and what I did last time, a lot of that worked. So they will have to prove to me that they are making adjustments before I will make a big adjustment. That's how I have always pitched."
While Lee won't deviate from his game plan, expect Rays starter David Price to throw fewer fastballs. The Rangers took advantage of some of those in Game 1 and will likely see more of what they got in Arlington this weekend: off-speed and breaking pitches. That's not to say Price will alter what he's done all season.
"If I threw 96 mph and someone hit it, I'd probably throw it again, too," Rangers outfielder Jeff Francoeur said Monday. "He can pitch."
Lee put his game plan to work in an elimination game for the Philadelphia Phillies last postseason and won it. In Game 5 of the World Series, Lee allowed five runs in seven innings of an 8-6 win over the Yankees.
The line is a little misleading. Lee gave up single runs in the first and fifth innings, but the Phillies got out to a big lead. He ran into trouble to start the eighth and was pulled, and some of the inherited runners scored. But he was the winning pitcher in a must-win game.
He said he isn't worried about the demeanor of his team or the pressure that comes with a winner-take-all game.
"No one expected us to win both games in Tampa just like no one expected them to win both games here," Lee said Sunday. "It's why you play the games. So we're going to stay positive. They flat out beat us, but we flat out beat them at their place. It's going to be fun and we're not panicking or worried or nervous or anything. It's one game. It's win or go home at this point."
And maybe it's win and Lee stays close to home in Texas, too. He sure would look good fronting the Rangers' rotation for the next few years.