x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Exceptional Cliff Lee has been brilliant for Phillies

Cliff Lee was the big free agent pitcher the New York Yankees targeted, but it is the Philadelphia Phillies who landed him, and he has been exceptional for them.

Ace left-hander Cliff Lee has been practically unhittable for the Philadelphia Phillies this season.
Ace left-hander Cliff Lee has been practically unhittable for the Philadelphia Phillies this season.

When the Philadelphia Phillies were the surprise winners of the Cliff Lee auction in December, they almost could not believe their good fortune.

Lee was the prize of the 2011 free-agent class, and pundits had him returning to the Texas Rangers, whom he had pitched into the World Series, or taking the big money from the New York Yankees, who had made Lee their primary off-season target.

Lee shocked nearly everyone by choosing Philadelphia instead.

Half a season into his five-year, US$120 million (Dh440.7m) deal, the Phillies may be having a hard time believing how good Lee is.

They had seen him before, of course, when they traded for him in the middle of the 2009 season and had him - sound familiar? - lead them into the World Series. They saw how dominant he can be, especially when he gets on one of his streaks.

But last month, back with the Phils for his second stint, Lee was not just good. He was ridiculously, impossibly good. In five starts, Lee was 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA. He allowed exactly one run in the entire month. And he finished with three consecutive shutouts.

That is more than most top pitchers record in a single season. Complete games are rare. In the modern game, shutouts are scarce as dodo birds. Back-to-back-to-back shutouts are the stuff of modern-day legend.

"He's been every bit as good as we thought he'd be," said Ruben Amaro Jr, the Phillies general manager. Actually, Lee may be better.

On a team of veterans, some of whom, like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels, already have experienced a championship (2008) in Philadelphia, Lee is seen as the missing link, the final ingredient needed for the Phillies to win their second title in four years.

His starts have become "events" in Philly, must-see games. His dominance in last fall's post-season evoked comparisons of the Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax, another lefty, in his prime.

Even teammate Roy Halladay, who pitched a no-hitter in his post-season debut last October, was not enough to get the Phillies back to a third straight World Series. But paired with Lee, the duo could be unstoppable. The Phillies have not hit much, but their pitching has been so dominant, it has not mattered. They are clearly the class of the National League.

For now, however, in the first week of July, Lee is not focused on the play-offs.

"I expect us to do something special," he said. "We expect to win the World Series, but we can't do that right now.

"What we need to do to do that is win today, go into tomorrow and win tomorrow."

That has become far easier for the Phillies now that they have Lee, who treated June like October and shows no sign of stopping.

The week in the NBA

Teams of the week

• New York Yankees. The Yankees used the inter-league schedule to beat up on some NL Central teams, and thanks to their 5-1 record, vaulted over Boston into first place in the AL East.

• Atlanta Braves. The Braves swept Seattle in a three game inter-league set, going 4-2 for the week, to hang close to front-running Philadelphia in the NL East.

Players of the week

• Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies. The ace left-hander tossed two shutouts and extended his consecutive scoreless streak to 32 innings.

• Jose Reyes, New York Mets. The shortstop, below, continued his magical season with a blistering week at the plate: 14-for-27 (.519) with two more triples for a major league-leading total of 15.

Dud of the week

• Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals. Even at 68, without having managed in the big leagues for more than a decade, it is doubtful that Johnson forgot what to do in the dugout. But the Nats lost the first three games Johnson managed after Jim Riggleman quit on them.

Series of the week

• Arizona at Milwaukee, tomorrow-Wednesday.

With inter-league play concluding, it is time to focus on the divisions. This series features the Brewers, tied atop the Central, and the Diamondbacks, two back out in the West.

• Detroit at Los Angeles, Monday-Wednesday

The Tigers have overtaken the Indians in the Central and the Angels have rebounded from a rough May to pull within a game of front-running Texas in the West.