Cliff Lee's gem puts Yanks in huge hole

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees have one shot to make it to the World Series, and that shot comes in the form of a three-game winning streak. They have to win the ALCS in six, if only to avoid the futile and emasculating exercise that will be a rematch with Cliff Lee in Game 7.

The Yankees absolutely, positively have to win Games 4, 5 and 6, or there will be no defending their title or their honor. They don't belong in the same ballpark with Lee any more than the Knicks of the '90s belonged in Michael Jordan's gym.

Maybe that's why Derek Jeter was wearing a gray Knicks pullover at his locker after he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, two of them high-heat punchouts from the left arm of Lee. Remember the night Jordan dropped 55 on the Knicks in his comeback to Madison Square Garden? That was Lee in Yankee Stadium on Monday night, minus the hang time.

Instead of wagging his tongue at his Game 3 opponents, Lee laughed at them. He laughed as he raced off the field after thwarting Brett Gardner's latest head-first dive into first base at the end of the third -- acting like a pitcher who knew how this story would end.

Eight innings. Thirteen strikeouts. Two hits. One walk. No runs. No chance.

"Today was another masterpiece," Alex Rodriguez said of Lee.

The Yankees might as well have been swinging a Wiffle Ball bat or an old maid's broom. This was true when Lee pitched for the Phillies, and it was true again Monday night when he returned in the colors of the Texas Rangers, who are halfway home to the kind of upset the Florida Marlins slapped on the Yankees in the World Series seven years back.

Texas won by an 8-0 count, and maybe the home team was lucky the Rangers shredded David Robertson and scored six times in the ninth. At 122 pitches, Lee was all set to come out for the final three outs, if only to humiliate the Yanks one last time.

"How do you feel?" Texas manager Ron Washington asked his ace when he entered the dugout after the eighth.

"I feel good," Lee responded. As it turned out, their five-second conversation was made moot by the six-run surge.

How absurdly good was Lee on this night? Andy Pettitte made one lousy mistake in the first inning, hanging a cutter that Josh Hamilton hit for a two-run homer, and the 2-0 deficit felt like a 10-0 mountain to climb.

All in all, Pettitte was his usual brilliant October self. "Cliff just bettered him tonight," Washington said.

Cliff just bettered the best team money can buy, again. And no matter how much the Yankees talked about Game 4 and Game 4 only, they know in their heart of hearts they're facing three sudden-death contests over the next four days.

One more loss makes a Game 7 against Lee -- on Lee's Texas turf -- the best-case scenario. That Game 7 would be nothing more than a mercy killing of a Yankees team that isn't as good or as hungry or as charmed as its most recent predecessor.

"We're not down 3-0," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "and losing in the bottom of the ninth."

It only feels that way.

A.J. Burnett takes the Game 4 ball Tuesday night, a truth more frightening than the vampire teeth and zombie hands he bought for his kids at a Halloween store before Game 3. Burnett hasn't just been a bad pitcher -- he's been a living, breathing monument to bad body language.

In other words, he isn't nearly as tough as the Bruce Lee tattoo he wears on his left arm. "We have the utmost confidence in A.J. and all of our pitchers," Rodriguez said.

What's A-Rod supposed to say? We all know Burnett will likely make Kevin Brown's performance in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS appear Lee-like in comparison?

No, the Yankees have little choice but to whistle through this October graveyard. "I don't think we are in trouble," Girardi said with a straight face.

"Tomorrow is a new day. The sun will come up and we'll play a new game tomorrow night."

The Yankees had better play that game with all-or-nothing urgency. Jeter and A-Rod and Mark Teixeira had better start hitting the ball with authority, and Girardi had better start making his decisions with more clarity. The manager decided against protecting a 2-0 lead with Mariano Rivera in the ninth, leading to the blowout and the lame explanation that he wanted to save Mo for multiple innings in Games 4 or 5.

Who says Rivera will be needed for more than one inning in either game, or whether he'll even be needed at all?

Whatever. The Yanks are desperados now, and that was never clearer than it was in the top of the eighth, when El Duque Hernandez, Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill were shown on the video board to great cheers. The throwbacks in the crowd were used as diversions from the lost cause on the field.

But there's no escaping this unforgiving ALCS reality: The Yankees knew they couldn't beat Cliff Lee in last year's World Series, and they know they can't beat him now.

So they have to go 3-0 between Tuesday night in the Bronx and Friday night in Texas, and they have to start that streak with their old reliable, A.J. Burnett.

If the Yankees only get two of the next three, they'll assume the role of the Knicks to Lee's Jordan in Game 7, when the posterizing pitcher will do everything but hang on the rim.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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