SEATTLE -- Cliff Lee's back is fine and a good thing, too. Otherwise he might have been decapitated by Justin Smoak's fifth-inning line drive. "I thought that was going to hit me in the head for sure," Lee said. "I don't know how I got out of the way of that one." He did. Nothing seemed to bother Lee on Saturday night in pitching against his former teammates. His back was fine, his pitches were sharp and Smoak's scorching line drive sailed just inches above his head.
Lee was able to hang around for eight innings and pitch the Rangers to a 6-1 victory over the Mariners at Safeco Field. "Typical," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "It's what he does. He had a couple games of a rough stretch but nobody lost confidence in him and he didn't lose confidence in himself. That's the type of game he throws. That's what he expects." Lee, pitching against the team that traded him to the Rangers on July 9, allowed one run on six hits and a walk with eight strikeouts. He is now 4-5 with a 4.10 ERA in 13 starts for the Rangers and 12-8 with a 3.19 ERA on the season. This is his second straight strong outing since being forced to miss a start because of a strained muscle in his lower back. Lee also beat the Yankees on Sunday and in a combined 16 innings over those two starts, he has allowed just two runs on eight hits, four walks and 13 strikeouts. "It's huge," third baseman Michael Young said. "That's a guy we're going to be relying on to get us were we need to be. He's healthy, he's free and easy and he's a lot of fun to play behind." Especially when his back is healthy, he's able to get extension and bend in his delivery and avoid those nasty line drives up the middle. "I feel fine," Lee said. "The back thing is gone. It's a non-issue, Hopefully it stays that way and I can help the team win." The victory, combined with Oakland's loss to Minnesota on Saturday afternoon, left the Rangers with a 10-game lead in the American League West with 15 games to play. The Rangers' magic number is now six. "We like where we are right now, but without a doubt the job is not done," Young said. "We've got work to do. We need to keep our eyes on the prize." Offensively, the Rangers were led by the bottom three hitters in their order as Jeff Francoeur, Jorge Cantu and Bengie Molina were a combined 6-for-12 with four RBIs. Francoeur and Cantu, with left-hander Jason Vargas on the mound for the Mariners, were both making their first start since Sept. 8. That was the last time the Rangers faced a left-handed starter. Francoeur went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and Cantu had a double. This was Francoeur's first appearance in a game since his walkoff hit-by-pitch against the Yankees last Saturday. "It's been a long time since I've gone a week without an at-bat," Francoeur said. "But I felt good. I felt comfortable. It's fun. To see us win, the A's lose, the magic number go down, you can see the excitement growing every day." Molina, one night after publicly flogging himself for letting down pitcher C.J. Wilson, went 3-for-4 with two RBIs. He entered the game hitless in his past nine at-bats, two for his past 26 and hitting .197 since being acquired from the Giants at the beginning of July. "Much better night," Molina said. "It gives you a lot of confidence. The way my game is going, to have this kind of game is huge for my confidence. Hopefully I can keep it going. I've had a horrible year. I'm just trying to catch good, win games and help these kids be better pitchers." Lee is already pretty good. He was in almost complete control on Saturday night, needing to survive only one tough jam. Lee, after starting the game by giving up an infield single to Ichiro Suzuki, had retired 12 straight batters going into the fifth inning. Then, with the Rangers leading 3-0, Smoak led off with the single that just missed Lee and Josh Bard slammed a double to deep center. Smoak was held at third with nobody outs and he never made it home. At first Lee was just trying to minimize the damage. He did better than that. Lee struck out Matt Tuiasosopo, retired Michael Saunders on a weak pop up to short and got Josh Wilson on a fly to right to leave both runners stranded. "That was a couple of big outs right there," Lee said. "That was big to keep momentum on our side. When a team is on the brink of busting out a big inning and you shut it down, it's a momentum builder." Lee's shutout bid came to an end when Franklin Gutierrez led off the seventh with a home run to left-center. But the Rangers still had a healthy 6-1 lead.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.