ARLINGTON -- At some point, the Rangers had to score with Cliff Lee on the mound. In the two games that Lee had started since being acquired by the Rangers, his offense had given him a total of three runs in the 18 innings the left-hander had pitched. And after five innings in his latest start Thursday against the Angels, the Rangers had provided him with just one run -- a homer by Michael Young in the first inning.
But the Rangers broke out with a go-ahead two-run frame in the sixth with the score tied, sending Lee to his first victory since being traded as the Rangers edged the Angels, 3-2, at the Ballpark in Arlington. "We finally got Cliff his win," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He and [Jered] Weaver were locked up, and they gave everybody what they were looking for. We put a good inning together to get the three runs, and they stood up." Vladimir Guerrero started the rally with a one-out double in the sixth. After nearly swinging out of his shoes in his first two swings of the at-bat, Guerrero poked a ball into right field for what looked like a single. But as the ball slowly rolled to right fielder Bobby Abreu, he turned on the burners and hustled into second to just beat the throw. The extra effort paid off, as Josh Hamilton doubled to left field to bring around Guerrero, giving the Rangers a one-run lead they would never relinquish. "Hustle double was huge, man. Huge," Young said. "First of all, I don't know how he hit that pitch. Slider down and away, and he fires it into right-center and legs out a double. It got us momentum with Josh hitting. It was definitely a good at-bat ... big momentum-shifter right there." "It was probably three to four inches outside," said Weaver, who gave up three runs in six innings in the loss. "He turned what I thought was a single into a double." And after Nelson Cruz followed with an infield single, Bengie Molina pushed the lead to two with a sacrifice fly to center field. That proved enough for Lee, who pitched 8 1/3 innings in the win, giving up two runs on five hits with no walks while adding four strikeouts. Closer Neftali Feliz recorded the final two outs to pick up his 26th save of the season. "I felt like I had to battle a little more tonight. My location wasn't as good as it was in Boston," Lee said. "Tonight, I had to mix it up a little bit more. I found myself behind in the count a few more times, and I was fortunately able to get some outs. I threw more balls than I would have liked to." It marked Lee's seventh straight start of pitching at least eight innings, the first pitcher to accomplish the feat since Pat Hentgen did it in 1996. But Lee didn't want to give up the ball. After Washington came out to get Lee after he recorded the first out of the ninth on a flyout to left, Lee and Washington talked for several seconds before Lee reluctantly gave up the ball. He threw just 99 pitches in the win before exiting with a grin on his face. "Any time you're pitching in the ninth you want to go ahead and finish it off," Lee said. "Coming out is better than staying out there and giving up a run or two. I didn't think that was going to happen, but that's Washington's job -- to make those decisions. And you've got to respect that." Per the norm, the Rangers' defense backed Lee every step of the way. Cruz caught a fly ball at the wall off the bat of Howard Kendrick in the fourth, and Ian Kinsler followed with a diving stop later in the inning. Young got in on the action, too, with a lineout from his knees to end the fifth. "There were definitely some great plays," Lee said. "There were some great plays all around all night. That's great. The offense is unbelievable. You can't say enough about the way those guys are swinging the bat. But they definitely made some good plays tonight." And after Lee's final out came on a basket catch by Hamilton, Cruz recorded the second out on a sliding catch to rob Torii Hunter of a single to right before Julio Borbon ended it with a putout in center. "I think a lot of credit goes to Cliff. He's got such a great tempo, and he keeps the defense involved," Young said. "We're always on our toes and we're ready to make plays. We know when he's on the mound he's going to force guys to swing the bat. He's going to force the action because he throws so many strikes. It was a fun day to play defense." It was one of the many reasons the Rangers traded for Lee, who not only picked up his first win but helped the Rangers push their AL West lead to six games over the Angels. "Each game with these guys is important," Weaver said. "Six back is not where we want to be. It's not what we're about." Should Lee continue to pitch every fifth day like the Rangers want him to, he'll start three more times this season against the Angels and six games total against the AL West. And should he have as much success in those games as he did Thursday against the Angels, the Rangers just might lock up their first division title since 1999. "It's an opportunity to extend our lead against those guys," Lee said. "They're right behind us. And any time you're playing anyone in the division, it's important."
Chris Cox is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.