ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Cliff Lee savored another playoff victory, saying winning is the only way to really evaluate how he performs.
“That’s the bottom line, regardless how that happens,” the Texas Rangers ace said after beating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1 Wednesday in the opening game of the AL playoffs. “If we get a win, it was a good performance.”
Picking up where he left off during a stellar postseason run in 2009, Lee shrugged off a shaky first inning to shut down the Rays and help the AL West champions win a playoff game for the first time in 14 years.
It was exactly what the Rangers had in mind when they acquired the 2008 Cy Young Award winner, who improved to 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in six postseason starts.
The Rangers will try to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series on Thursday, with left-hander C.J. Wilson taking the mound for Texas against right-hander James Shields.
“Obviously, I enjoy competition, period, whether it be the regular season, postseason, playing darts, shooting pool or whatever,” Lee said. “I like to compete, and I hate to lose. Any time you’re playing against the most elite baseball players in the world, it’s a challenge.”
No pitcher has done it better in the playoffs, lately.
The 32-year-old lefty worked seven impressive innings, matching a postseason best with 10 strikeouts while allowing five hits — just two after escaping a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. During one dominating stretch, he retired 16 of 17 batters before giving up Ben Zobrist’s homer in the seventh.
The Rangers got to Rays ace David Price early, building a 5-0 lead for Lee, with Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina hitting home runs and Jeff Francoeur and Vladimir Guerrero also driving in runs.
“There’s never going to be a point when I’m on the mound that I feel like it’s not going to be my day,” said Lee, who fanned Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli after giving up singles to Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria in the first. “If you lose confidence out there, you’re in a bad spot. Regardless of what the situation is, or what the circumstances are, you’ve got to stay positive.”
Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five postseason starts for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, including 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA against the New York Yankees in the World Series.
He lost to the Rays three times during the regular season. That meant nothing Wednesday as the Rangers, in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, stopped a nine-game postseason losing streak.
Price, a 19-game winner, allowed five runs and nine hits in 6 2-3 innings. He struck out eight and, like Lee, walked none.
“It’s very frustrating,” Price said. “I wasn’t at my best. It’s tough to swallow.”
Lee began this season with the Seattle Mariners, who dealt him in early July to Texas, which was looking to bolster its rotation with a No. 1 starter capable of leading the Rangers deep into the postseason. Philadelphia acquired him from Cleveland during last year’s run to the NL pennant, and the lefty is eligible for free agency after the season.
The Rays beat him twice while he was with the Mariners, and once with the Rangers during Tampa Bay’s three-game sweep of Texas at Tropicana Field in August.
“It’s just tough to square the guy up. You get a chance to score runs, you have to do it,” said Tampa Bay’s Kelly Shoppach, a former teammate of Lee in Cleveland.
“It seems like we hit a lot of balls really hard,” said Zobrist, who also had a second-inning double off Lee. “We just couldn’t get anything to really fall in and get something going.”
Price played a key role in Tampa Bay’s surprising run to the World Series two years ago, coming out of the bullpen as a rookie with less than a month’s experience in the majors to get the final four outs against Boston in Game 7 of the AL championship series.
He had the AL’s third-lowest ERA this season at 2.73, and became the youngest pitcher to start an All-Star game since Dwight Gooden in 1988.
He has never beaten the Rangers. In addition to Wednesday’s loss, he’s 0-2 with a 7.45 ERA — his highest against an AL opponent — in four regular-season starts against Texas.
The Rays have been resilient all season and are confident they can come back in the series. Shields is 0-4 over his past six starts and hasn’t won since Aug. 29, yet his teammates expect him to shine in Game 2.
“I think he thrives off of this kind of situation, losing Game 1 at home,” Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton said.
“We’ve kind of been up and down all year, and we don’t let one game get to us,” Upton added. “We know we have the talent and guys here to get it done. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here right now.”