So when Cliff Lee completed a splendid night, he combined superior pitching with impeccable timing. His performance led the way as the Philadelphia Phillies produced a series-opening 5-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.
This matchup is so good that it is referred to in many quarters to as a "World Series preview." The connection is obvious, but let's try to remain calm here. The months between now and October should be both entertaining and informative for fans of the grand old game. No need to rush the issue.
When Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was asked if this game at Citizens Bank Park had a playoff atmosphere, he responded: "No, it wasn't playoff baseball. Ain't that time yet."
- 131 wins
- 121 wins
When Lee was asked a similar question about a playoff atmosphere, he replied: "Not for me, it wasn't. It's a long ways to the playoffs."
It is true that these two clubs were the popular preseason picks to win pennants. And it is true that, as the Phillies and the Sox came to this meeting, they had the first- and third-best records in the Majors. (Inconveniently for the Red Sox, the Yankees had the second best record.) The two teams had the primary statistics on their side as well-- the Red Sox going into this series leading both leagues in runs scored, the Phils leading in team earned run average.
And the opening game of the series Tuesday night had the kind of starting pitchers the occasion demanded -- Josh Beckett for Boston was 6-2 with a 1.86 ERA and was coming off a one-hitter in his last start, and Lee had given up one earned run in June.
After Lee had pitched another nine innings Tuesday night to likely round out his work out this month, he still hadn't given up a second earned run. Lee also had fashioned a career-high 32-inning scoreless streak. So what we had here was a performance from Lee that was in its own way even bigger than the hype.
But he doesn't care about that, which is one of the reasons he is successful.
When he was asked to compare his level now with his earlier work, Lee said: "I barely remember yesterday, much less '09."
As good as these clubs have been, neither comes to this Interleague moment at full strength. The Red Sox, for instance, have starting pitcher Clay Buchholz on the disabled list with a lower back strain. Left fielder Carl Crawford is out with a hamstring strain. And in games played in National League parks, they lose designated hitter David Ortiz.
For the second game of this series, the Red Sox are reportedly going to move Adrian Gonzalez from first to right to make room at first base and in the lineup for Ortiz and his potential production.
The way Lee pitched Tuesday night, he would have stopped any lineup known to mortal man.
"He had control and command of the game," Manuel said.
The Red Sox may be feeling a little shortchanged from an offensive standpoint after losing two of three in Pittsburgh and being stopped cold here. But they still have a difficult lineup. Cliff Lee says so.
"Even without Crawford and Ortiz in the lineup, it's still a lineup with threats from start to finish," Lee said. "According to you guys [reporters] it's the best offense in baseball."
The Phillies aren't operating at full capacity, either, with right-hander Roy Oswalt on the DL with lower back inflammation and Ryan Madson, their third closer of the year, out with a bruised right hand. The back end of their bullpen could become an issue, but that wasn't going to happen Tuesday night, with Lee allowing two hits and two walks and pitching nine superb innings.
One way or another, by record and by reputation, this is the best available matchup on the existing 2011 Interleague calendar. If it appeared a little one-sided Tuesday night, great pitching can do that, even against the best of offenses.
What Cliff Lee demonstrated Tuesday night was not that this was October baseball on fast-forward, but that an Interleague matchup could contain greatness, even in late June.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.