Cliff Lee (right) struck out 13 while allowing just one run in the Phillies' 1-0 loss to the Braves. (USA Today Images)
ATLANTA -- The way Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitched in the second half of the season, it’s a shame the Phillies aren’t going to the playoffs. The two lefties could have formed a dangerous tandem in the month of October.
Then again, maybe it’s a good thing the Phillies’ season will end on Sunday. This team’s offense would probably just have broken your heart in October anyway.
Two months before Thanksgiving, Lee had the carving knife out Friday night. He pitched eight spectacular innings against the Atlanta Braves, walked none, struck out 13 -- and still lost!
Braves third baseman Chris Johnson gave his team a 1-0 win when he stroked a down-and-in, 0-2 slider into the left-field seats to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
“It basically came down to one pitch,” Lee said. “I felt like I made a good pitch. I was trying to bury it down and in and it was down and in. I think it was a ball. He put a good swing on it and hit a home run and that’s the game.
“It’s frustrating, but you’ve got to give credit to (Atlanta starter) Kris Medlen. He shut us down for eight innings and (closer) Craig Kimbrel came in at the end. It was a well-pitched game on both sides. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Medlen held the Phillies to two hits over eight innings.
“When a guy pitches like that, you want to back him with a little offense,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said of Lee. “The conversations in the dugout every inning were, ‘Let’s go. The guy is pitching his tail off.’”
Lee finished his season 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA. His September was spectacular: In five starts, he allowed eight earned runs in 39 innings (1.85 ERA). He walked one -- one -- and struck out 54. That makes him the first pitcher in the history of the game to have a month with 50 strikeouts and one or few walks.
Not too shabby.
In 12 starts after the All-Star break, Lee had a 2.89 ERA. Hamels had a 2.97 in 13 starts after the break.
“I gave the team a chance to win just about every time I took the mound,” Lee said. “As a starting pitcher, I feel pretty good about that.”
Giving the team a chance to win doesn’t always equal a win, especially with this Phillies’ offense.
The Phils have lost eight of their last nine games. They have scored just 19 runs in those nine games. They have not homered in nine straight games, their longest home-run drought since 1989.
Lee, a frequent victim of poor run support, hopes the Phillies add some offense in the offseason.
“No doubt,” he said. “I think we all would. It’s been a big part of our struggles, lack of scoring runs. But we’ve also had games where we scored a bunch of runs and screwed it up on the mound. It takes a total package. You have to hit, pitch, play defense and have a good bullpen.”
Three seasons into his five-year contract with the Phillies, Lee has made the playoffs only once, in 2011. He finished in the top 10 in ERA in the league last year and will do so again this year. That’s a lot of personal success and no postseason to show for it. Lee turned 35 in August. Does he feel like he’s using up a lot of good bullets as his clock ticks?
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m getting up there in age. I’m 35 years old now and when this contract’s over I plan on going home, so I’m running out of opportunities. All I can control is what I can control, and I’m going to do everything I can to help us win. That’s all I know how to do.”
Don’t fret, Lee fans. The lefty still has two guaranteed years left on his contract (at $25 million per season) and a vesting option for 2016. So he could be around for three more years -- and maybe more because he did leave himself wiggle room in his comments.
But he left no doubt that he wants to get back to the postseason while he’s still a difference-maker.
“Right now, I don’t [see myself pitching beyond this contract],” Lee said. “There are a lot of things that can happen between now and then, but I just know that my kids are 12 and 10 and I’ve basically missed the first half of their lives.
“I’m financially able to shut it down, so … that’s how I feel right now. But when the time comes I might look at it differently.
“I also want to finish being good, not struggling and fumbling through at the end. I want to finish strong and take it to the house. Next year, I want to win a World Series, then another one, then another one and take it to the house. That’s what I’m wanting to do.”