In mid-December 2010, I was a little downtrodden. I was at a bar called Jersey’s, the same place where, just two months earlier, I’d watched Ryan Howard take strike three from Brian Wilson to send the Giants to the World Series and the Phillies packing for warmer weather than southern New Jersey would offer in the winter. I was in between jobs, mired in year two of post-graduate work rockiness that drove me and almost everybody associated with me a little bit nuts. Plus, it was cold and dark. It was a bleh time.
Naturally, all it took was one of the greatest surprises in 21st century baseball to turn all (well, most) of that around in a heartbeat. That night at Jersey’s, I and the rest of the internet learned that Cliff Lee was going to sign with the Phillies as a free agent, nearly a year to the day after he was traded to Seattle in one of the worst trades made by any club in recent memory.
That was a different time; Phillies baseball was about optimism, and Ruben Amaro’s brazen disregard for conventionality and common sense seemed more endearing than endangering. Fast forward to 2013, and though those circumstances have changed and the golden aura around the Phillies logo has been muted and desaturated, Cliff Lee remains rust-free and a persistent bright spot, a beacon in the miasma.
Let’s first acknowledge that Lee might be a little bit sociopathic. He’s always been stoic and robotic on the mound, never dilly-dallying on (or along the way to or from) the mound, but that million-mile stare at the All-Star Game? It’s a classic give-no-fuck moment that ranks up there with his nonchalant pop-up catch in the ’09 World Series and never watching a second of the final out in his 2010 ALDS Game 5 masterpiece against the Rays. But it’s also terrifying, and compels me to hold his performance in an even higher regard than I probably normally would. I ain’t gonna trifle with that.
Luckily, there’s no need to plea for clemency in the face of criticism, because Lee’s 2013 featured very little in the way of disappointment. He led the Majors in walks per nine, as well as strikeout-to-walk ratio, for the second consecutive season. In fact, his 6.94 mark in the second of those stats is the 25th-best in MLB history and Lee’s third such entrance among those top 25 seasons. The rest of the vitals:
In a world without Clayton Kershaw, Lee’s season would probably receive more serious Cy Young Award consideration. As it is, he had a top-five season in the National League and stands to be rewarded as such, in a just world.
Lee’s September is also worthy of it’s own separate discussion, as it may well merit consideration for one of the best-pitched months in baseball history (I have no idea where to even begin researching that). Five starts – four of them going eight innings and the other seven – none of them shutouts but only one or two runs allowed in each, plus an absolutely preposterous 54 strikeouts to one walks. Fifty-four to one! The bit of trivia there is that the batter to draw that walk was San Diego’s Jedd Gyorko, if you’re hunting for minutiae. The month also featured three double-digit strikeout starts, punctuated by a 13-K game to end the month and Lee’s season with an exclamation. In reality, the month had the potential to even be better, had his start against the Mets on the 22nd not been abbreviated after seven innings (and just 88 pitches) for lackluster offensive reasons.
The future of Lee in red pinstripes might be a bit murkier, but that’s not a discussion for right now. Today is a day to reflect on the best thing about the Phillies’ season and appreciate it for what it was: the latest great season for one of the most spectacular reclamation projects in baseball history, and another high point for one of Philly’s most beloved players.
An easy A.