SAN FRANCISCO -- The magic of Cliff Lee is that he puts the ball exactly where he wants it.
All the time.
The secret of Cliff Lee's success is that the ball never stays in the middle of the plate.
He's basically the same guy every time out, which is why last week Nolan Ryan called Lee the most consistent pitcher he's ever seen. He basically never struggles with his command, which is why when someone asked Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux the other day what he notices when Lee is off, Maddux's answer was something along the lines of, "You mean when he was hurt?"
The most stunning part of Game 1 of the World Series wasn't that the Giants stepped out of character by scoring so often in their 11-7 win. No, the most stunning part was that the Cliff Lee who showed up on the AT&T Park mound Wednesday night looked so little like the Cliff Lee we've seen in all those other games he has pitched the past three years.
"It shocks everybody," Rangers catcher Bengie Molina said. "Because everybody's thinking he's a machine. It's very surprising. Everybody thinks he's a machine, but he's not.
The Giants will no doubt tell you that they came up with a great idea of how to hit Lee, that the secret to all those hits and all those runs Wednesday night was a smart approach.
Sure, they had a good approach. They decided to hit all those pitches that Lee left in the middle of the plate.
They had a great approach. They faced Lee on that rare night when he wasn't the best postseason pitcher we've ever seen.
"I don't know," Giants outfielder Cody Ross said. "He'll probably say he was off. We were on. It felt like we were swinging the bats well."
Of course it felt that way, because the Giants usually have about one of these games a month. They usually score about two or three runs a game, not six runs in one inning.
They beat the Braves by scoring 11 runs in an entire four-game series. So sure, they're going to feel like they were swinging the bats well after scoring 11 runs in one game.
The bigger question, it seems, is what was Cliff Lee feeling? And why, on the first night of the Rangers' first World Series, did Cliff Lee suddenly start throwing pitches in the middle of the plate?
"It was kind of weird," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler admitted. "You expect him to put the ball on the black."
The Rangers expect that, because that is the only Cliff Lee they've ever seen. Or, at the very least, it's the only healthy Cliff Lee they've ever seen.
Molina said of all the times he has caught Lee with the Rangers, the only other time he can remember a lack of command like Wednesday was on Aug. 21 in Baltimore (when Lee gave up a season-high eight runs).
That was part of a four-start stretch where Lee went 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA. It was also, as the Rangers admitted later, when Lee was pitching with a bad back.
So what about Wednesday? Was this sudden lack of command a sign that Lee is hurt again?
"I feel good," he said. "Physically, I'm fine."
The only answer Lee was willing to give was that nights like this happen, and from almost every pitcher in the game that's an answer that's easy to accept.
Nights like this do happen. But nights like this have not happened to Cliff Lee.
"For whatever reason, I couldn't get consistent with locating my pitches," he said. "I wasn't really locating with anything."
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For most pitchers, bad location is a problem. For Cliff Lee, who only became the Cliff Lee we know because of an incredible ability to put the ball exactly where he wants it, bad location means that even an offensively challenged team like the Giants can score seven runs against him.
If you look at Lee's 2010 season, you'll find that this was only the fourth time in 32 starts (regular season and postseason) that he has allowed seven-plus runs.
What's sort of shocking is that those four starts came against the Padres, Orioles, Royals and Giants -- not exactly the best lineups the game has to offer.
The lesson is that Cliff Lee without his amazing command isn't the best pitcher we've ever seen. He's not close to that.
The other lesson is that just because the Giants hit Cliff Lee this hard in Game 1, no one should expect them to do the same in Game 5.
"If I were throwing pitches on the corner and they kept hitting it all day, I wouldn't know what to do," he said.
The final lesson is the one Lee offered when someone asked what he'd tell C.J. Wilson, who will start against the Giants in Game 2 on Thursday night.
"Don't throw balls down the middle?" Lee offered, sounding a little stunned by the question.
We were all a little stunned Wednesday. If the Giants were honest, they all would tell you they were a little stunned, too.
As for the Rangers, this had to be every bit as stunning as the eighth-inning bullpen collapse in Game 1 against the Yankees.
You'll remember that the Rangers bounced back just fine from that stunning loss.
The chances are pretty good that they'll bounce back from this one, too. The chances are also pretty good that when Cliff Lee takes the mound for Game 5, he'll look nothing like the guy who was on the mound during Game 1.
If he doesn't, that really will shock everybody.