Before he joins 'em, Yanks need to win

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Cliff Lee is probably going to be a Yankee pretty soon, but he definitely won't be a Yankee soon enough to help them tonight, nor this October.

In fact, until the press conference, tentatively scheduled for December in the New York Yankee Steak House, or some similarly posh location, it is best to assume that Lee will continue his current role.

That of Yankee Killer.

The Yankees haven't beaten Lee since May 29, 2009. Three teams and one World Series ago, when Lee was with the Cleveland Indians and the Yankees were looking to win their first championship in nearly a decade.

And even on that day, Lee pitched pretty well, limiting the Yankees to three runs in six innings but being outpitched by a combination of Andy Pettitte, Alfredo Aceves and Mariano Rivera in a 3-1 Yankees win at Progressive Field.

Since then, Lee has beaten the Yankees twice with the Philadelphia Phillies -- in the World series, no less -- and once this year during his brief stint with the Seattle Mariners, going the distance in a 7-4 win at Yankee Stadium on June 29.

Now, he looms over them again. First tonight at Rangers Ballpark, where he will try to make the Yankees 0-for-Texas, and then again in October, where it is more than possible that the Yankees and resurgent Texas Rangers will meet in the postseason.

In fact, if the Yankees get nosed out in the AL East -- and heading into tonight's game, they hold a one-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays, who lost to the Tigers earlier Wednesday -- their probable first-round opponent would be the Rangers, which means two encounters with Lee in a five-game series

When that scenario was presented to Joe Girardi before Tuesday night's 10-inning loss to the Rangers and C.J. Wilson -- a lefty who is hardly in Lee's league but still stifled the Yankees into the sixth inning -- as added incentive to win the division, the manager scoffed at the thought that his team would need any such motivation.

"I don't think you look at it that way," he said. "Obviously we know what kind of pitcher he is, but to me that's looking too far ahead and putting too much importance on one game.''

Still, the way the Yankees -- and Lee -- perform tonight could serve as a harbinger. As good as tonight's starter, Javier Vazquez, has been since his rocky April, on paper this matchup looks about as competitive as a fight between Manny Pacquaio and Imelda Marcos.

Since being traded to Texas on July 5 in a deal the Yankees tried desperately to complete for themselves, Lee has gone 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA. He has allowed just 41 hits in 51 1/3 innings and his strikeouts to walks ratio is a ridiculous 37-3. And two of those walks were intentional.

Lee will be the pick of the free-agent crop this winter and command a CC Sabathia-like deal. The Yankees admittedly lust after him so much that after he vanished from the market, they were no longer interested in any other pitchers at the trade deadline, despite losing Pettitte for five weeks to a groin injury.

They are willing to wait for what they want.

But in the meantime, they still have to deal with Lee as an adversary, and not just any adversary but the pitcher that could stand between where they think they belong -- back in the World Series -- and where he is capable of sending them, which is to a first-round KO.

Interestingly enough, many of the Yankees have good individual numbers against Lee. Derek Jeter's career average is .387 (12-for-31), Mark Teixeira's is .370 (10-for-27 with one HR), Nick Swisher's is .364 (8-for-22, two HRs), Jorge Posada's is .292 (7-for-24, two HRs) and even Curtis Granderson, who hits no lefties, hits Lee (.300, 12-for-40, one HR).

But the same thing Girardi likes to say about Sabathia is true of Lee. You can hit him but he knows how to limit damage, eliminate big innings and keep his team in the game. He rarely breaks 91 on the gun but his deceptive motion adds a couple of notches in the eye of the hitter, the only place where it counts.

And besides, tonight the Bombers will not have Teixeira -- who is not expected to rejoin the team until Thursday in Kansas City following the birth of his son Tuesday morning -- and Posada's status is uncertain after Girardi revealed the 38-year-old had an irritated shoulder after Tuesday's game.

This is an important game for a lot of different reasons, but none is more important than the Yankees' need to send a message to Cliff Lee.

We'll be glad to have you join us next year, but first, we've got to find a way to beat you tonight.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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