Price, Lee match heat, precision in Game 1 duel
Poised for showdown, elite lefties have shined on big stage
ST. PETERSBURG -- When the discussion focuses on elite southpaws, CC Sabathia, David Price, Cliff Lee and Jon Lester are names that generally leap to mind.
Two of those four will be engaged in an old-fashioned showdown on Wednesday at Tropicana Field in Game 1 of what promises to be a rousing American League Division Series.
Price and Lee, carrying the banners and hopes of AL East champion Tampa Bay and AL West kingpin Texas, respectively, will match heat and precision in what shapes up as a classic confrontation.
Both clubs are hoping to be at close to full strength with the return from injuries of marquee stars. Evan Longoria, the Rays' dynamic third baseman, is expected to be recovered from his quad ailment, while Josh Hamilton, the Rangers' AL MVP candidate, showed the Angels over the weekend that his bat can still sing after missing 24 games with two small fractures in his rib cage.
Lee, acquired from the Mariners on July 9 in a six-player swap, established himself as a big-game pitcher with few peers last October with the Phillies. He was 4-0 in five postseason starts, his team winning all five. In 40 1/3 innings, he yielded 27 hits and six walks, striking out 33.
Price also has impressive October credentials, but in a different role. During the Rays' magical ride to the 2008 World Series, the kid from Vanderbilt fashioned a 1.59 ERA in five relief appearances.
He is best remembered for getting the final four outs -- three on third strikes -- in a 3-1 Game 7 triumph over the Red Sox in the ALCS. It was merely the biggest game in franchise history.
A starter now with Cy Young Award-worthy numbers, Price was named the AL's All-Star Game starter and came through with two impressive innings.
The big stage, clearly, doesn't bother the 6-foot-6, 220-pound athlete from Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Lee is also a native of the South, from Benton, Ark. He is, by most statistical measures, the most precise pitcher on the planet. In 212 1/3 innings this season, he walked 18 batters while striking out 185. Nobody is even remotely close to that strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
"He's kind of like the impact player you need this time of year," veteran Rangers southpaw Darren Oliver said. "You'd rather have him on your team than against you.
"He's a carefree guy. It's like he's playing Wiffle ball in the neighborhood. It's how he rolls. If you have success with it, why change?"
Price takes a more intense approach, creating a fascinating contrast in personal styles.
For Price and Lee, this is the rematch of an Aug. 16 matchup in Florida that went to the Rays, 6-4. Price lasted six innings, yielding two earned runs on five hits and five walks, striking out eight. He was not involved in the decision when Tampa Bay rallied late against Lee.
Lee went 7 2/3 innings, giving up six earned runs on nine hits. He walked one and struck out 10, taking the loss after the Rays scored twice in the eighth inning.
"That has nothing to do with what's going to happen [in Game 1]," Lee said. "It has zero bearing on the game. It's a new game. We start over on a new slate, and I'm going to expect to go out there and have success -- and I would anticipate them thinking the same thing."
The Rays pinned a pair of May losses on Lee while he was with Seattle. He went eight innings, giving up four earned runs, on May 5 in his second start for the Mariners and dropped a 2-1 decision 11 days later in the Trop. In those three outings, Lee yielded 12 earned runs in 23 2/3 innings, allowing 24 hits and two walks while striking out 25.
Lee is 6-5 lifetime with a 2.87 ERA against Tampa Bay. He has a history of tying up the Rays' primary threats. Longoria is hitting .167 against him with one extra-base hit, a double, in 18 at-bats. Crawford is batting .241 with a triple in 29 at-bats. B.J. Upton (.333, 21 at-bats), Ben Zobrist (.308, 13 at-bats) and Carlos Pena (three homers but only a .207 average) have solved Lee at times.
Price hasn't beaten Texas in four career starts, with a 7.45 ERA -- his highest against any AL club.
In Price's relatively limited dealings with the Rangers' hitters, Michael Young is 2-for-7 with five RBIs, and Nelson Cruz is 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs. Hamilton has struggled against Price, going 1-for-6 with two strikeouts. Vladimir Guerrero is 2-for-7 against the Rays' ace.
"He'll try to get you to chase out of the zone with his breaking ball, off-speed pitches," Hamilton said. "Just let your ability take over and react to pitches, because he's had a good year. He's proven himself in the league. So we'll take what he gives us and try to put the barrel on the ball. Keep it simple."
One mission for the Rangers is wiping out any and all memories of their regular-season horrors indoors. They were 0-3 inside the Trop, taking two of three in the great outdoors of Rangers Ballpark.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.