Cliff Lee had a lot of incredible starts in his Phillies career. In 118 starts with the team, he pitched 12 complete games, winning 11 of them. But perhaps the most dominant start in his entire Phillies career was neither a complete game nor was it a victory.
On April 18, 2012, Cliff Lee pitched ten scoreless innings against the soon-to-be World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. It was the first time since 2007 that any pitcher had thrown more than 9 innings in a game, and not a single pitcher has accomplished the feat since.
In 2007, two different pitchers threw 10-inning games, and both of them were future Phillies. Aaron Harang tossed 10 innings of one-run ball against the Milwaukee Brewers en route to a 2-1 Reds victory, and Roy Halladay also threw 10 innings of one-run ball against the Detroit Tigers en route to a 2-1 Blue Jays victory.
The only other pitchers to throw 10 scoreless innings in a game in the twenty-first century are Mark Mulder, who did so in 2005 against the Astros, and Roy Halladay, who did so in 2003 against the Tigers (Halladay absolutely dominated the Tigers throughout his career).
Cliff Lee is also the first pitcher since 1994 to throw more than 9 shutout innings in a start and still lose. It happened 24 times in the 1970s, 16 times in the 1980s, and 3 times in the 1990s. Lee is the only pitcher to do it since.
Lee’s start was also particularly impressive because he threw just 102 pitches in those 10 innings. According to the pitch count data available on Baseball Reference, just seven pitchers in major league history have recorded a start of 10+ shutout innings and 102 pitches or fewer. There isn’t much pitch count data available for the first several decades of baseball history, but this number is impressive nevertheless.
If you’re looking for even more fun facts about Lee’s 10-inning game, Jayson Stark has you covered in this ESPN article from 2012. But what Stark couldn’t have known at the time was that this start would look so much more impressive ten years down the line.
In fact, with the way things are trending in major league baseball right now, I don’t think it’s that far-fetched to suggest this could be the last 10-inning Phillies start any of us ever see. That is, certainly, a very bold statement, and I hope it doesn’t prove to be true. I could even imagine a scenario in which Joe Girardi lets Zack Wheeler go out to pitch the tenth sometime next year. But it’s already been a decade since the last 10-inning start, and complete games are getting rarer and rarer as time goes on. It’s a shame that we may never see a start quite like this again, but it also makes Lee’s brilliance that much more special.
Despite how brilliant he was, however, Cliff Lee couldn’t buy a win in 2012. One of the major storylines of the 2012 season was how little run support he received, and he finished just 6-9 on the year. The Phillies were 12-18 in his starts. For comparison, José Alvarado had more wins in 2021 than Cliff Lee did in 2012.
This game is emblematic of the problem that plagued the 2012 Phillies roster, and indeed the problem the plagued the 2012 Phillies as well. Both rosters had high-performing stars, but lacked the surrounding pieces and the depth necessary to support those stars. The major difference between those two teams, of course, is that the 2012 team was coming off of a successful run, while the 2021 team was trying to make the playoffs for the first time in ten years.
All the stars from the 2021 roster are returning in 2022, and if this lockout ever ends, Dave Dombrowski will have the opportunity to surround those stars with more talented players. Let’s hope that no Phillies pitcher in 2022 has to deal with the dismal run support that Cliff Lee dealt with in 2012.