Cliff Lee dominates Yankees, Rangers grab 2-1 lead in ALCS

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Saturday’s Game 1 NLCS matchup between Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay was billed as one of the best postseason pitching matchups ever. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. That’s just not how this game works. And so, Cliff Lee could have given up four runs over six innings tonight and most rational baseball fans wouldn’t have been surprised. That’s why there’s something to be said for someone who comes out and does exactly what he was hyped to do: Completely dominate.

Lee held the Yankees to two measly hits over eight shutout innings tonight, striking out 13 and walking just one, leading the Rangers to an 8-0 win and a 2-1 lead in the ALCS. The southpaw is now 7-0 with a ridiculous 1.31 ERA and 67/7 K/BB ratio over 64 1/3 innings in eight career postseason starts. He and Bob Gibson are now the only pitchers in major league baseball history to strike out 10 or more batters in three straight postseason starts. Lee is the first to do it in a single postseason.

There was a question of whether Lee would come back out after throwing 122 pitches through eight innings, but the Rangers saved Ron Washington a difficult decision by scoring six runs in the top of the ninth. Considering that Washington ended up using Neftali Feliz with an eight-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, we probably shouldn’t trust his judgment, anyway.

Andy Pettitte was overshadowed by the brilliance of Lee, but his lone blemish was the two-run homer by Josh Hamilton in the top of the first inning. Otherwise, he was excellent, allowing five hits over seven innings while striking out five and walking none. It was fair to wonder how the veteran left-hander would bounce back after missing most of the second half of the regular season with a left groin injury, but his first two starts during the postseason have effectively put those concerns in the rear view.

As fans poured out of Yankee Stadium in the top of the ninth inning, the immediate assumption was that there was no way A.J. Burnett would pitch Game 4 on Tuesday night. Wrong. Joe Girardi announced after the game that he would stick with Burnett instead using of CC Sabathia on short rest, even though the Yankees are down 2-1 in the series. It sounds crazy on the surface, but maybe not so much when Tommy Hunter is starting on the other side. Looking past a deceptive 3.73 ERA during the regular season, Hunter averaged just 4.78 K/9 and served up 21 homers in 128 innings. If the Yankees can hit him like they are capable of doing, they could probably absorb a mediocre start from Burnett. That’s clearly the plan.

The Rangers now have the series advantage and they may very well hold the mental advantage, too. Lee obviously looms pretty large in a potential Game 7 in Arlington. It would be silly to look that far ahead, though. If the Yankees can’t take advantage of favorable matchups in the next couple of days, they may not see Lee again until he goes out in search of a well-deserved king’s ransom this winter.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.