Lee strikes out 12, Phillies beat Nationals 4-0

Philadelphia Phillies Cliff Lee throws the ball during the third inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park with the Washington Nationals on Thursday, April 14, 2011 in Washington.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

April 14, 2011 6:33:55 PM PDT
Back at his best after an unusually brief outing, Cliff Lee struck out 12 in a three-hit shutout Thursday night, allowing the Philadelphia Phillies to overcome their own problems at the plate in a 4-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.

Lee (2-1) fooled hitters with darting fastballs across the black of the plate, sweeping changeups in the dirt, and plenty of other right-where-he-wanted-them pitches.

Lee walked one and faced 30 batters, three over the minimum. Quite a turnaround from his previous game, at Atlanta last Friday, when Lee allowed six runs and 10 hits in 3 1-3 innings - his shortest start since Sept. 4, 2009.

This was the second night in a row that Philadelphia got a complete game: Roy Halladay did it Wednesday in a 3-2 victory at Nationals Park. The Phillies hadn't gotten consecutive complete games since May 11-12, 1999, at St. Louis, when Paul Byrd and Curt Schilling did it.

It's rare that a guy can be perfect through five innings and not come close to being the evening's best pitcher - yet that's exactly what happened to Jordan Zimmermann (1-2).

Less than 20 months removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, Washington's right-hander matched zeros with Lee for quite some time. But the Phillies got to Zimmermann in the sixth. He retired their first 15 batters of the game, but the 16th, Carlos Ruiz, drove an 0-1 pitch barely over the wall in left for a leadoff homer.

Two outs later, the Phillies delivered a second hit, a double by Shane Victorino, and he scored when fill-in third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. wildly threw away the ball for an error.

That would be enough offense to back Lee, who was close to unhittable Thursday on a nice spring night, when the temperature at first pitch was 69 degrees. He gave up a double leading off the third to Danny Espinosa, who took third base when Hairston Jr. flied out to center. But Espinosa was thrown out at home by shortstop Jimmy Rollins while trying to score on a chopper by Zimmermann.

Rookie Wilson Ramos singled to begin the fifth, but then was caught stealing by Ruiz. Ramos later drew Lee's lone walk in the eighth. The only other Nationals players to reach base was pinch hitter Jesus Flores, who singled leading off the ninth.

Otherwise, Lee looked like the lefty Philadelphia figured it was getting when signing him to a $120 million, five-year contract this offseason.

Lee recorded his 21st career complete game, sixth shutout and fell one strikeout shy of his high.

In one stretch he struck out five batters in a row. In the seventh, Lee fanned the side - the 2-3-4 hitters: Rick Ankiel, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche - and got each one swinging at a 76 mph change. Here's the thing, though: Each final strike wound up in Ruiz's catching mitt in a completely different spot.

Fittingly, perhaps, Lee finished the game by getting Werth - the costly free agent the Phillies let leave for Washington - to ground out.

For the second game in a row, Washington made two errors. This time, the second - a bobbled grounder by second baseman Espinosa - helped Philadelphia load the bases with none out in the eighth. That's when Zimmermann was replaced by Drew Storen, and Placido Polanco's grounder made it 3-0, before Jimmy Rollins lined an RBI single to right for a 4-0 lead.

Zimmermann went seven-plus innings and was charged with five hits and those four runs, but only one was earned. Certainly a heartening development for Nationals fans wondering how far-more-hyped-and-prized phenom Stephen Strasburg will fare as he works his own way back from the same surgery on his pitching elbow.

NOTES: Philadelphia 1B Ryan Howard played a day after getting hit by a pitch on the right wrist. He went 0 for 4. ... Eight of Lee's 11 career double-digit strikeout games have come since the start of last season. ... The Phillies have won six consecutive regular-season series, dating to 2010, and 15 of the last 16. ... Washington LF Michael Morse returned to the starting lineup after missing two games with the flu. ... Flores' single was his first hit in the majors since May 9, 2009. His career was slowed by a shoulder injury. ... The Nationals moved RHP Henry Rodriguez from Double-A Harrisburg to Triple-A Syracuse as part of his rehab stint in the minors. He went on the 15-day disabled list at the end of spring training with a neck injury. Washington acquired Rodriguez this offseason in the trade that sent OF Josh Willingham to Oakland. ... Former Nationals CF Nyjer Morgan returns to Washington on Friday with his new team, Milwaukee.