ATLANTA -- Cliff Lee's final jog to the Phillies dugout was staggered. The scoreboard turned black Friday at Turner Field as Guns N' Roses blasted to signal closer Craig Kimbrel and another eventual Braves victory. Lee looked at his catcher, Carlos Ruiz. He could not believe the outcome. Salt, meet wound.
Lee threw Chris Johnson a biting slider at his shins in the eighth inning. Johnson crushed it into the left-field seats for the game's lone run. Atlanta won, 1-0, and Lee was left with a bitter taste as his winter began.
The Phillies are lifeless. They have scored 19 runs in their last nine games, eight of which are losses. They have not hit a home run in nine games, their longest such drought since 1989. The end, which comes in two days, is too far away.
Atlanta is playing for the best record in the National League and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Phillies will use their bullpen to pitch the season's final two games. This is no fair fight.
Kris Medlen no-hit the Phillies for the first 52/3 innings. Cesar Hernandez prevented ignominy with a nubber up the third-base line that never reached the infield dirt. He beat Johnson's throw to first.
The Phillies, at least, can boast pride in a long-term contract that has yet to bust. The first three years of Lee's five-year, $120 million megadeal were fruitful. His 2.80 ERA since 2011 ranks third among all major-league pitchers with at least 70 starts in that span.
Just Clayton Kershaw (2.23) and Jered Weaver (2.77) top him. The amazing part is those pitchers are 10 and five years, respectively, younger than Lee. He is pitching at an elite level as a 35-year-old lefthander.
He ended a sublime September with 54 strikeouts and just one walk in 39 innings. He was the first pitcher in baseball history to strike out more than 50 batters with one or fewer walks in one month.
"Maybe I'm getting gray in my beard, I don't know, but I still feel young," Lee recently said. "It's a young man's game. I guess I'm getting up there. I'm 35 now, but I still feel young. My body feels good."
At one point, Lee struck out six straight Braves. A sixth-inning fly out to foul territory by Medlen ended his streak one shy of the franchise record. So he struck out the next batter, Jason Heyward, on three pitches and Reed Johnson on five pitches. He fanned nine of 11 hitters from the third inning to the sixth.
Manager Ryne Sandberg sees the possibility for even more improvement.
"He's found his secondary pitches, maybe more the second half of the season," Sandberg said. "He's throwing his curveball. He's throwing his change-up. That's been a sign of him turning into a pitcher and really learning something about himself and being effective and making those adjustments. I think going forward he can just mix in pitches more all the time to make his fastball more effective."
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