Reporting from St. Petersburg, Fla. — Like many challenges that Cliff Lee has encountered in his last two seasons, Texas' left-hander handled them with the tranquility of a big-game pitcher.
Lee worked out of a first-inning bases-loaded jam Wednesday to further extend his distinction as one of baseball's clutch pitchers.
Lee struck out Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli to end the threat, and then embarked on a seven-inning, no-walk, 10-strikeout performance that enabled Texas to cruise to a 5-1 victory over Tampa Bay and 19-game winner David Price in Game 1 of the American League division series.
"I like competing, period," Lee said after improving his postseason record to 5-0 with a 1.52 earned-run average in six career playoff starts since 2009 with Philadelphia and the Rangers.
Lee, who was dealt from Seattle in a six-player trade on July 9, enhanced his value as a free agent after this season. He retired 12 consecutive batters after allowing a leadoff double to Ben Zobrist in the second, and six of his 10 strikeouts were on called third strikes.
"I like pitching on a big stage," Lee said. "Just pitching in the big leagues alone is an honor. But when you get an opportunity to make it to the postseason, that's what it's all about."
Lee avoided trouble in the first when home plate umpire Tim Welke ruled that Lee's 2-1 pitch hit the bat of Pena, who argued that the pitch grazed his hand, which would have given Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.
"When he [Pena] did not start jumping around and didn't want to go to first base, I had a pretty good feeling it hit the bat," Lee said.
The Rangers played with the calm of a seasoned team, not a franchise making its first postseason appearance since 1999. Bengie Molina, acquired from San Francisco during the season, started his three-hit game with an RBI single in the second. Molina's hit scored Jeff Francoeur, who had an RBI double just before Molina's hit.
"It felt like we took the crowd out of the whole deal," Francoeur said. "We got everyone loose after that."
The Rays will look to rebound in Game 2 behind James Shields, who went 0-4 with a 5.79 ERA in his final six regular-season starts, but whose nickname is "Big Game James" because of his knack for pitching well in high-profile games.
"It wouldn't be a bad time for him to live up to that name," Rays left fielder Carl Crawford said. "As you know, he can't do it alone. We've got to help him."