SAN FRANCISCO -- Cliff Lee is almost as hard to know as he is to hit.
It's not that he's aloof. It's not that he's mercurial. It's not that he's fickle.
It's just that Lee, who takes the ball for the Rangers against the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night at AT&T Park (6:30 p.m. CT on FOX, Postseason.TV), is so focused, so unaffected and so unassuming that even those who work closest with him rarely get to peel back the layers beyond surface level.
The qualities that have made the 32-year-old Lee the most dominant postseason pitcher in the game today are the same qualities that make him a bit of a colorless character in his dealings with the media. Because what drives Lee is a dogged determination that doesn't tolerate distraction. And that inextinguishable competitive fire is precisely what makes Lee a winner on the mound and with his teammates, past and present.
"If I ever was told that outside the clubhouse there were two guys that wanted to kill me," said Carl Willis, Lee's former pitching coach with the Cleveland Indians, "and I could only bring one person outside with me, I'd bring Cliff Lee."
"Because they'd have to kill him," said Willis, speaking by phone from his Durham, N.C., home. "He's not going to give in or give up. He's going to take some licks, but he's going to keep coming, and he's going to win."
Willis knows Lee as well as anybody in the game. When Lee's career was at its lowest point after the 2007 season, in which he was demoted to Triple-A and left off the Indians' postseason roster, he spent a couple winter days at Willis' home, playing catch and talking about life and pitching.
At that point, Lee had developed a reputation as being a bit too stubborn for his own good. The Indians had intended for him to add a fourth pitch, a slider, to his repertoire in '07, but an oblique injury and Lee's tendency to stick to what had worked for him in the past got in the way.
"What I learned from 2007 is sometimes you struggle in this game," Lee said. "I had been used to having success, and it was the first time I had really struggled to that extent in my career. It just so happened to be the year that the Indians were trying to make the playoffs. There were guys in Triple-A pitching better than I was, and I ended up in the Minor Leagues and someone took my spot. That's really the way it should be, and that's baseball. I used that as motivation to come in the next year and prove that that wasn't the real me."
2010: 3 GS, 3-0, 0.75 ERA Career: 8 GS, 7-0, 1.26 ERA
2010: 4 G, 3 GS, 2-1, 1.93 ERA Career: 4 G, 3 GS, 2-1, 1.93 ERA
At AT&T Park
Career: 2 GS, 2-0, 1.13 ERA
2010: 19 GS, 10-8, 3.33 ERA Career: 64 GS, 31-16, 2.99 ERA
Against this opponent
Career: 3 GS, 3-0, 1.13 ERA
2010: N/A Career: N/A
Loves to face: Edgar Renteria (4-for-17) Hates to face: Juan Uribe (11-for-37, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs)
Loves to face: Jeff Francoeur (3-for-16)
Hates to face: Vladimir Guerrero (1-for-1)
Why he'll win: October wonder hasn't lost yet
Why he'll win: Four nasty pitches he's comfortable with
Pitcher beware: One bad pitch could mean a loss in a tight ballgame
Pitcher beware: Can he stay calm?
Bottom line: Unbeaten
Bottom line: "The Freak"
That winter, when Willis and Lee talked about the upcoming '08 season, they decided to scrap the slider altogether and just let Cliff Lee be Cliff Lee. He would stick with his old strength of commanding his fastball in on righties and away from lefties. The only tweak, they decided, would be that once Lee established himself on that side of the plate, he would begin going away from righties and in on lefties with his changeup and two-seamer. He'd make them respect his command to both sides.
By year's end, they certainly respected him. Lee won a career-high 22 games and the American League Cy Young Award. And his career would never be the same again.
What we're seeing now, as Lee takes a ridiculous 7-0 postseason record and a 1.26 ERA into his second World Series Game 1 start in as many years, is an extension of that '08 adjustment and a byproduct of the competitiveness that drove him to defy his doubters.
Lee shrugs off his '07 demotion and postseason slight as "the way it should be." But in truth, he felt betrayed when those moves were made. He had a similar feeling when the Phillies dealt him to the Mariners last winter -- mere months after Philadelphia had acquired him from the Indians and rode him to the Fall Classic. The Phillies would certainly rather be here than at home, but at least they avoided facing a revenge-hungry Lee.
"When a team gets rid of you," he said, "it's funny how you have a knack for stepping up a little more when you face them. There's a little more incentive to beat them."
But that's about as emotional an admission as you'll get from Lee. He has always preferred to let his pitching and his approach to the game do the talking, and both have spoken volumes the last three years.
Rangers manager Ron Washington knew he was getting a premier pitcher when Texas acquired Lee from the Mariners in a midsummer swap this year. Yet he had no idea what he was getting off the field.
"Tremendous work ethic," Washington said. "You know, when you see him from afar, you never see him prepare to do what he does out there. He has tremendous work ethic, and more than anything else, he brings influence. The way he goes about his business, the energy which he plays with, the passion he has for the game, the things he goes out there and never let affect him, those are the type of qualities that a No. 1 guy brings, and it just influences every other pitcher that follows him or that's on that pitching staff. That's what he brought to us."
Lee, who will be the game's premier free agent when this postseason odyssey ends, credits his conditioning and pre-start routine with allowing him to maintain his composure and his success, even as he's been traded three times in the last 15 months.
You have to be dogged to do what Lee has done with less-than-dazzling raw stuff. Those who have only watched him casually or who have only heard about his postseason exploits second-hand might be surprised when they see the radar-gun readings after each of his pitches Wednesday night. Though the numbers might lead you to believe as much, this is not a power pitcher blowing his fastball by opposing batters. This is simply a guy with impeccable command and a deceptive delivery.
"He has a little pause in his delivery and also a bend in his left leg, in his knee," Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. "That's why guys don't see him well."
Muelens says most batters get set when the pitcher pulls his pitching hand away from the glove. But with Lee, a slight delay after that motion forces opposing hitters to pinpoint a different spot to cue their swing.
"If you do your normal approach," Meulens said, "you're going to be early, and the ball's going to jump in on you."
Early aggressiveness is the only way to beat Lee, because he's simply not going to let the opposition work him into a favorable count. Over the last three seasons, Lee has a 5.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2010, it was a league-best 10.28, as he struck out 185 while walking just 18. This postseason, he's struck out 34 and walked one.
"It's just ridiculous, stupid stuff," Willis said. "Especially for a guy not throwing 96 or 98 [mph] with something filthy."
In that sense, Lee's success is mind over matter. He might not overpower hitters, but he has the confidence and competitiveness to challenge them.
But you could also argue that his success is due to the mind not getting in the way of a good game plan. Lee is by no means dense, but he's also not especially eloquent or intellectual, either. A reporter once asked Lee to name his favorite book, and he unapologetically admitted he doesn't ever remember reading one.
Lee's approach, in life and in sport, is to keep it simple. Whether it's mid-April, the Midsummer Classic or the middle of an amazing postseason run, he doesn't let the game get more complicated than it needs to be. And the fact that he's generally unfazed by his environs helps, too.
Back in Spring Training '09 in Arizona, Lee, thanks to a connection at Luke Air Force Base, was given the chance to ride in an F-16 Fighting Falcon. The jet made a 7 G-force turn at one point, and Lee, unlike about 95 percent of those who experience such a turn at such a speed for the first time, didn't lose his lunch.
"I thought I'd be nervous," Lee said afterward. "I wasn't nervous at all."
And that cuts to the core of the man who will take the mound in Game 1 for a Rangers team looking for its first World Series win.
No nerves. No pretensions. No fear.
It's why Willis would want Lee in his corner in a fight for his life.
"If Cliff Lee's on your side," Willis said, "you can count on him."
And the Rangers, once again, will be counting on him Wednesday night.