There could be no more resounding affirmation of Lee's overall wellness than the one the left-hander produced Sunday against the imposing lineup of the New York Yankees. In the process of displaying his regained health and effectiveness, Lee led the Texas Rangers to a 4-1 victory that resulted in a series sweep of the Yankees.
Lee had four uncharacteristically vulnerable outings in the second half of August. It was subsequently learned that he was suffering from lower back pain and inflammation. Given 11 days between starts, he reappeared in the Rangers' rotation Sunday. And he reappeared in full health and fine form.
The Yankees managed only one run and two hits off Lee in eight-plus superb innings. He did not allow a hit through the first 5 1/3 innings. It was news that he walked three Yankees, a season high for him. Lee later chided himself for this, but it may have had more to do with Derek Jeter battling tooth and nail for two walks than any lapse on the part of Lee. For the season, Lee's command has still been the stuff of legend. He has walked 15 batters, while striking out 166.
There were two long-term implications from the performances of Lee and the Texas team as a whole. Both of them were gloriously good news for the Rangers. Before this series, the Rangers were 1-4 against the Yankees. Now they are 4-4. This was the first time this season that the Yankees had been swept in a three-game series.
It is true that the Rangers did not face the Yankees' ace, CC Sabathia, in this series. But it is also true that the Rangers were without their best hitter, Josh Hamilton. This series proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Rangers are ready to compete with the defending World Series champions. And they are likely to get another chance at that competition in the postseason.
Manager Ron Washington did his best to put a workable perspective around this development. "What is means is on the 10th, 11th, 12th of September, we won three ballgames," he said, adding that the Rangers would move on to focusing on their next opponent, the Tigers, while the Yankees would be thinking about the Rays.
But later, Washington acknowledged that this series sweep had some real significance. What did it prove?
"We can play with anybody," Washington said. "I always knew we could do that, and this weekend we went out and proved it."
An equally telling and encouraging point was demonstrated by Lee's performance. With his return to full health and effectiveness, the Rangers not only have one of the game's best starters back at work, but they also will have a legitimate No. 1 postseason starter.
In the 2009 postseason with the Phillies, he was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts. The Yankees lost two games in the 2009 World Series. The winning pitcher against them in both games was Cliff Lee.
Lee said of his back: "It's not restricting me at all. It's a non-issue, a non-issue."
Lee, who is his own toughest critic, said his difficult starts last month had to do not only with back pain, but with him simply not pitching as well as he should.
"I was throwing pitches that were belt-high and over the plate," he said. "It wasn't just me feeling something in my back. It was me not making pitches. I was making pitches, just at a lower percentage."
His performance came as no surprise whatsoever to Washington, who had said before the game that he expected Lee's best work.
"He's finishing his pitches, he's bending over, his bullpen [work] is impeccable," Washington said.
What might have been surprising for the general public was still seeing Lee on the mound in the ninth inning Sunday on a day when the local conditions were essentially hot, hot, hot. In the seventh inning, the temperature was 95 degrees and the heat index was 101. Yet there was Lee, pitching deep into this game and showing his usual mastery of the pitching craft, throwing the fastball to precise spots and keeping the Yankees off-balance by changing speeds. Only Jeter putting up a tough at-bat, working a walk leading off the ninth, led to Lee's departure.
Lee brushed off the climate as a non-factor.
"Yeah, it was hot," he said. "But everybody out there was playing in the same weather. It is what it is."
What does it mean for the rest of the Rangers to have Lee pitching in good health and terrific effectiveness? Second baseman Ian Kinsler, whose alert and aggressive baserunning led to his scoring what proved to be the winning run in the sixth inning, was asked if this was best he had seen Lee pitch for the Rangers.
"No, we expect him to pitch like that every time out," Kinsler said.
And given Lee's body of work over the last three seasons, that is a completely reasonable expectation. On Sunday, Lee was back on the mound and back at the top of his considerable form. The outlook for the Rangers just became a lot brighter -- not only for the remainder of the regular season, in which the Rangers have earned an 8 1/2-game lead in the AL West, but beyond that, into the postseason. That beckons for the Rangers now, not as an oddity, but as a promising situation.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.