NEW YORK - Cliff Lee stumbled as he stepped up to his seat at the postgame podium.
“Booby trap right here,” he said with a grin.
That was about his only slip-up all night.
The ace of October went through the New York Yankees like a buzz saw again, striking out 13 and pitching the Texas Rangers to an 8-0 victory Monday for a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
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Josh Hamilton hit an early two-run homer off Andy Pettitte and started a six-run outburst in the ninth with a leadoff double. Lee allowed only two singles in eight innings and became the first pitcher to reach double digits in strikeouts three times in one postseason.
“I’m not satisfied with that,” he said. “We still have some work to do here. A lot of fun to come into New York and get this first one. Hopefully we can come out here tomorrow and pick up where we left off.”
Mr. Automatic improved to 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight postseason starts. Three of those wins have come against the power-packed Yankees, including two in last year’s World Series for Philadelphia.
New York won the other four games against the Phillies to take home its 27th championship, but now faces a tall task if it plans to repeat. The Yankees must win three straight against the resilient Rangers to advance without facing Lee in a decisive Game 7 at Texas.
Game 4 is tonight and the Yankees will start struggling right-hander A.J. Burnett, who hasn’t pitched since Oct. 2. Tommy Hunter goes for Texas in his first career start at Yankee Stadium.
“I don’t think we’re in trouble,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We’re down 2-1, we’re not down 3-0. It’s frustrating we’ve lost two games in a row, but we’ve lost two games in a row a lot of times before and come back.”
Pettitte, the old pro seeking his 20th postseason win, did his best to match Lee. But the longtime New York left-hander hung a first-inning cutter that Hamilton yanked over the short porch in right for his second homer of the series.
“It was just a bad pitch by me,” Pettitte said. “At the time, you don’t think that’s going to win the ballgame.
“I kept thinking we would get a guy on and (Lee) would make a mistake and someone would pop it out. It’s what you come to expect here.
“Cliff was great tonight to say the least. Outstanding. You can’t say enough about what he did, in this ballpark, it was impressive.”
Texas broke it open in the ninth against an ineffective David Robertson, getting RBI singles from Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina, plus a two-run single by Mitch Moreland.
Rangers closer Neftali Feliz flung his 100 mph fastball in the ninth and finished the two-hitter in front of a nearly empty ballpark, adding two strikeouts to increase Texas’ total to 15 – one shy of a postseason record for Yankees batters.
New York’s two hits matched a postseason low also set in Game 4 of the 1958 World Series and Game 3 of the 2001 division series.
Lee nearly landed with the Yankees before Seattle traded him to Texas on July 9. Maybe the Yankees should have offered a few of their many All-Stars, because Lee doesn’t seem to need much help.
Michael Young had three hits for the Rangers, who are 4-0 on the road in these playoffs. Texas won all three games at Tampa Bay in the first round, including a pair of masterful performances by Lee.
“Yeah, they’re comparable. I felt good every time,” Lee said.
Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees fared no better. Cutters, curves, sliders – they couldn’t touch Lee, who pumps in one strike after another like a robot programmed to do so.
“He’s not just firing the ball down the middle of the plate. He’s throwing quality strike after quality strike and there really is a big difference,” Young said.
Lee was so dominant, New York hitters were left shaking their heads in the dugout or questioning calls by plate umpire Jim Reynolds.
Robinson Cano showed bunt, Brett Gardner tried another headfirst dive into first base. None of it worked.
Gardner singled leading off the sixth and stole second, but Lee never rattled. He struck out Jeter for the second time, then induced routine grounders from Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira, who is 0-for-11 in the series.
Lee has been spectacular in the postseason during his career, striking out 67 and walking seven in 64 innings. Even after throwing a season-high 122 pitches, he was going to pitch the ninth until Texas broke it open.
“He was coming back out,” manager Ron Washington said. “We were going to ride him.”
Lee matched a career high for strikeouts, also accomplished July 27 against Oakland.
He retired his first 11 batters Monday, striking out seven, before missing high with a full-count fastball to Teixeira. It was the left-hander’s first walk in 192/3 innings this postseason, drawing a loud roar and a standing ovation from some in the sellout crowd of 49,840.
Rodriguez drove the next pitch to deep left-center, but Cruz made a running catch that ended the fourth.
Jorge Posada fisted an opposite-field single into shallow right with two outs in the fifth for New York’s first hit.
Young singled on the ninth pitch of his at-bat in the first inning and then Pettitte hung a 2-1 pitch to Hamilton in the middle of the plate. The slugger was a bit off balance on his front foot, but strong enough to pull the pitch about 330 feet to right field, clearing the inviting porch at Yankee Stadium.
“Josh hitting that homer in the first made things a lot easier, that’s for sure,” Lee said.
Pettitte set down 15 of 16 after the home run, with the only blemish coming on Young’s two-out infield single in the third. He threw 61 pitches through the first three innings, 17 to Young in his first two at-bats.
Pettitte, who owns postseason records for wins, innings and starts (42), allowed five hits in seven innings.
A top contender for AL MVP, Hamilton barely missed another two-run shot when his sixth-inning drive was caught at the right-field fence.