Cliff Lee rises to occasion for Rangers

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Club president (and co-owner, of course) Nolan Ryan sat just behind the Texas Rangers' dugout at Tropicana Field on Wednesday and had one thought when Cliff Lee exited after the seventh inning of a 5-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays: "That's why we got him."

"He pitched the game that we were hoping he would do," Ryan said. "He pitched a Cliff Lee game."

Back in July, when Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was busy working the phones to try to seal the deal to get Lee from the Seattle Mariners, the entire front office wondered how much better the club could be with a true ace at the top of the rotation.

And while Lee pitching in big games down the stretch to help the club make the postseason was a main component in giving up four prospects, including one with huge upside in first baseman Justin Smoak, it was Game 1 of the playoffs that was front of mind for Ryan and many others.

That's when you need your No. 1 to be better than the other guy's No. 1. For a Rangers team full of postseason neophytes, it became even more crucial.

"We felt like he could help us get there, but we also felt like we'd have the guy we wanted to go to right off the get-go [in the playoffs]," Ryan said. "He fulfilled that today."

No question about that. Lee's performance gives the Rangers hope of changing the organization's history of playoff futility -- one victory in 10 games in three previous American League Division Series appearances.

Lee went seven innings Wednesday, gave up one run and had 10 strikeouts. As usual, he did it without walking anyone.

He's now a ridiculous 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in six postseason starts. He has 43 strikeouts and just six walks, and has held opponents to one or zero earned runs in five of the six starts.

Wednesday's outing wasn't without its rough points. Lee loaded the bases with one out in the first inning as the Rays got three straight singles.

Carlos Pena stepped in with a 2-1 count, and Lee threw a high, inside fastball. Pena ducked back slightly and then claimed the ball hit him. Plate umpire Tim Welke ruled it hit Pena's bat, making the count 2-2 instead of either a hit batsman to drive in a run or a 3-1 count.

Lee took advantage. After the count ran full, he got Pena looking on a fastball on the outside corner. He then struck out Rocco Baldelli to end the inning.

It was tough to tell on replay whether the ball hit anything. And catcher Bengie Molina wasn't quite sure what happened.

"To tell you the truth, I couldn't tell," Molina said. "I know it hit something. I wasn't sure if it him or it hit the bat."

But manager Ron Washington scoffed at the idea that the play changed the game.

"When Cliff Lee is out there, he's so focused, if it ended up being a hit by pitch he would have done what he had to do to get out of that inning regardless," Washington said.

Either way, it was a break for Lee.

"It's not very often you give up three hits in one inning and they don't score," Lee said. "To get out of that with a zero was huge. It was a momentum builder for our team."

That showed when the Rangers got two runs the next inning, allowing Lee to get even more aggressive around the strike zone. After he allowed a leadoff double in the second, he calmed down and kept the Rays from generating any sort of comeback.

"When the going got tough, he stayed calm and went about controlling the pace of the game," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "He kept the game at his pace. Early on he really showed his mettle. He started getting back to the quick outs."

After the leadoff double, Lee got his next 12 batters. His only mistake was a high pitch to Ben Zobrist, who hit it over the wall in right for the Rays' only run.

Once the game ended, Molina marveled at Lee's ability to calm down and not get rattled after the tough beginning. It's something the Rangers have seen since Lee came over in July.

"He's just awesome," Molina said. "He is amazing, period. He's one of the best pitchers in the game, and he's a lot of fun to catch. He's unbelievable. He controls the fastball so well and puts the ball up wherever he wants to."

Molina said he knows when he and Lee devise the game plan to use against opponents' hitters that Lee won't deviate from it.

"If something goes wrong, he'll stick to it because he trusts himself," Molina said. "He'll make adjustments if needed, but he stays with it. So many guys don't trust their stuff. He does."

Lee trusted that stuff to the tune of 10 strikeouts, a Rangers postseason record. Six of those 10 strikeouts were called.

Still, Lee wasn't afraid to let the Rays put the ball in play. Texas' outfield, well positioned at a shallow depth, got to several line drives. Some hard-hit balls went right at Rangers defenders.

Lee threw mainly fastballs and cutters in the early innings, and then worked in knee-buckling curveballs to get Pena and Baldelli in the fourth. Both struck out with bats on their shoulders.

Lee worked quickly, allowing his defenders to get into a rhythm and rarely giving the Rays a chance to run the bases once they did find a way to get on.

"He moves the ball all around the strike zone, and that makes it tough as a hitter," Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "Whether there's nobody on base or the bases are loaded, he has just as good a chance of getting a ground ball or getting you to make some weak contact somewhere. It's just tough to square the guy up."

The Rangers were considered underdogs to Tampa Bay, the AL champion just two years ago. They have only a handful of players who knew what it was like to play under the bright lights of the postseason stage before Wednesday.

But Lee wasn't squinting. This is a guy who helped lead the Phillies to the World Series in 2009 and then fired a complete-game shutout against New York in Yankee Stadium in Game 1. In winning Wednesday, he made his 0-3 record and 4.56 ERA against the Rays in the regular season irrelevant.

"I like pitching on the big stage," Lee said. "Just pitching in the big leagues alone is an honor, but when you get an opportunity to make it to the postseason, that's what it's all about. That's what I thrive on. That's what I enjoy, and I expect to be successful."

The best part for the Rangers: Lee will be ready to pitch Game 5 if needed. Or the Rangers could decide to see what he can do in a Game 4 if they are desperate. But by beating Tampa Bay ace David Price, Lee has given the Rangers some critical momentum.

"It's big," third baseman Michael Young said. "That's especially true when we run our ace out there. We want to make sure we take care of that game. Cliff did a great job, everyone got that first win under our belts, and we can bear down and focus on tomorrow."

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