WASHINGTON – Consider the past two games Exhibits 1 and 1A for why the Philadelphia Phillies assembled their ace-after-ace starting rotation.
Cliff Lee produced a 12-strikeout, three-hit shutout in a 4-0 victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, a day after Roy Halladay went nine innings to win, too, giving the Phillies consecutive complete games for the first time since 1999.
"I want to throw nine innings every time I take the mound. That's that," said Lee (2-1), who walked one batter and went to three-ball counts on only two others. "I hope Roy does it every day before me, too, but that's what I'm going to try to do. Just because he threw a complete game it isn't like, 'Oh, I've got to do that, too.'"
Pretty nice when it works out that way, though, especially in this age of protected arms, scrutinized pitch counts and relief specialists.
"I want to be a guy who throws complete games every time," Lee said. "That's not really realistic, but going into each game, that's what I'm trying to do."
Didn't come close his previous time on a mound, at Atlanta last Friday, when Lee allowed six runs and 10 hits in 3 1-3 innings — his shortest start since Sept. 4, 2009.
But he was back at his best against Washington, fooling 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 faced 30 batters, three over the minimum, while recording his 21st complete game and sixth shutout. He fell one strikeout shy of his career high.
"Got sharper as the game went on," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "And I think the called strikeouts is an indication that he's hitting some spots that you just don't feel like you can do much with the pitch, but it's a strike. It just kind of ties you up."
Nationals leadoff hitter Ian Desmond went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. His take on Lee?
"He controls the zone. He's working in and out. He's changing his speeds. He just throws strikes," Desmond said. "And he works quick. He doesn't really let you get too comfortable."
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 early. He retired Philadelphia's first 15 batters, but the 16th, Carlos Ruiz, drove an 0-1 curveball barely over the wall in left for a homer.
"Only mistake I made all night," Zimmermann said.
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 on a nice spring night, when the temperature at first pitch was 69 degrees. He gave up a double in 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 in the fifth, then was caught stealing. Ramos later drew Lee's lone walk in the eighth. The only other Nationals player to reach base was pinch hitter Jesus Flores, who singled leading off the ninth for his first hit in the majors since May 9, 2009.
Otherwise, Lee looked like the lefty Philadelphia figured it was getting when signing him to a $120 million, five-year contract this offseason.
In one stretch he struck out five 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.
Halladay took a shutout into the ninth Wednesday before giving up a couple of runs. Lee was even better. They're the Phillies' first starters to go the distance since Paul Byrd and Curt Schilling on May 11-12, 1999, against St. Louis.
"Nowadays, that's kind of rare," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, understated as could be. "You don't see that too many times nowadays, so we're very happy with our pitching."
As well they should be.
NOTES: Philadelphia 1B Ryan Howard played a day after getting hit by a pitch on the right wrist. He went 0 for 4. ... The Nationals made two errors for the second game in a row. ... Eight of Lee's 11 career double-digit strikeout games have come since the start of last season.