ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Cliff Lee added another impressive line to his spectacular October resume, and now the Texas Rangers will play for the American League pennant.
Lee tossed his latest postseason gem and Texas won a playoff series for the first time, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1 Tuesday night in a decisive Game 5 on the legs of some daring baserunning.
Lee struck out 11 in a six-hitter for his second win over Rays ace David Price in a series in which the road team won every game – a first in major league history.
“It was a lot of fun, I know that much,” Lee said. “We had our back against the wall today and we came out and performed.”
The Rangers will host the defending champion Yankees in the opener of the best-of-7 ALCS on Friday night. Texas’ three previous playoff appearances ended with first-round losses to New York, in 1996, ’98 and ’99.
The teams split eight games during the regular season, including Texas’ three-game sweep at home in September. Lee beat the Yankees twice in last year’s World Series for Philadelphia.
“They’re a great team and that’s why they are where they are,” Lee said. “They’re going to be a good challenge, just like these guys.”
Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning for Texas, which had been the only active major league franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series.
Lee improved to 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA and three complete games in seven career postseason starts, striking out 54 and walking six in 56 1/3 innings. He had 21 strikeouts and no walks in 16 innings against Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think you can ask any more of a guy,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
The left-hander, acquired from Seattle in July, threw 90 of his 120 pitches for strikes. He retired his final nine batters and prevented Tampa Bay from completing an improbable comeback after losing the first two games at home.
“He was the Cliff Lee that everybody is used to seeing and he got the job done tonight,” said Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, who might have played his last game with Tampa Bay because he can become a free agent.
When B.J. Upton popped out for the final out, Lee didn’t even watch the ball drop into Elvis Andrus’ glove. He simply walked toward catcher Bengie Molina and the two hugged as Rangers players poured onto the field.
The Rays had the A.L.’s best record this season, giving them home-field advantage in the playoffs. But they lost all three games at Tropicana Field, managing only two runs.
“David pitched fine. We made too many spring training mistakes,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I want to congratulate the Rangers. Spectacular achievement they put forth this season.”
A pair of Rangers runners scored from second base on infield grounders – thanks to heads-up baserunning by Andrus and Vladimir Guerrero.
Kinsler batted .444 in the series with three homers and six RBIs. It was the first playoff series victory in the 50-season history of the Washington/Texas franchise.