HE’S BEEN TRADED FOUR TIMES in his career and three times in the last 15 months. He was 5-8 with a 6.29 earned run average and was demoted to Triple-A as a 29-year-old in 2007. He’s been underestimated, disrespected and shipped cross-country more than once.

Now Cliff Lee is the most compelling pitcher in baseball, and soon he’ll be the most influential, too.

In my last column, I detailed the unprecedented rise of the Tampa Bay Rays and noted that they might be the only thing left between the Yankees and their second consecutive trip to the World Series.

Oops.

Two wins at Tropicana Field, one complete game and a 21:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio later, Cliff Lee had shown me and anyone else who picked the Rays that we really shouldn’t have done that. You don’t bet against Cliff Lee’s team. Not in a best-of-five American League Division Series.

Clifton Phifer Lee is an invaluable baseball player. He’s more than a game-changer, more than an ace. He’s an automatic win – or two, whichever you need – in a playoff series. The man simply doesn’t lose after the calendar turns to October. Including his run to the World Series with the Phillies last year, Lee is 7-0 with three complete games and a 1.26 ERA in the postseason. In this year’s ALDS, the lefthander gave the Rays no room for error; they weren’t going to beat him, so they had to win Games Two through Four if they wanted to advance to the American League Championship Series.

But the greatest thing about Lee’s continued presence in this year’s postseason is the opportunity he now has to put a hurting on the teams that have spurned him over the past year.

That opportunity began last night when he shutout the Yankees for eight innings to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the ALCS. New York – which had been poised to acquire Lee from the Seattle Mariners back in early July – didn’t close the deal, favoring prized catching prospect Jesus Montero among other minor leaguers over a sure-fire spot in this year’s Fall Classic with Lee and his former Cleveland Indians teammate, C.C. Sabathia, as its 1-2 punch at the top of an unbeatable rotation. Instead, Lee is guiding a Texas franchise on its maiden voyage past the first round of the playoffs, and he’s trampling over the regretful Yankees in the process.

Somewhere in the wake of it all, George Steinbrenner’s ghost is fuming and calling New York general manager Brian Cashman into his office for a sit-down.

While the second half of Lee’s opportunity isn’t halfway formulated yet, it’s a good reason to start rooting for the Rangers and Phillies in their respective League Championship Series if you haven’t already.

If Texas can topple New York and Philadelphia can take care of business with San Francisco, Lee will have the chance he’s been chomping at the bit for since the two-time defending National League champs traded him to Seattle in order to open up a spot for his replacement, Roy Halladay.

The sexiness of a Lee-Halladay matchup in Game One of the World Series would put Gisele Bundchen and the whole Victoria’s Secret lineup to shame. It would be all that Shaq and the Heat against Kobe and the Lakers in the NBA Finals never was, all that Brett Favre and the Vikings against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the NFC Championship Game could still be – and then some: The old guy who they wanted to keep versus the new guy who they wanted a little more. An answer to the ultimate question of, “Who’s better?” Maybe a reason for the Phillies to kick themselves.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, two things are certain: Cliff Lee is going to become a very rich (I mean, even richer) man this winter, and he’s going to alter the balance of power in Major League Baseball.

Roy Halladay is making $15.8 million this season, and C.C. Sabathia is making $24.3 million. Lee is in the final year of a 5-year/$23 million contract, and he’s going to get at least as much as Halladay and possibly more than Sabathia from a willing bidder this offseason. As a man who’s been tossed around, chewed up and spit back out by more than one team in his career, it would be tough to criticize Lee for taking one of the enormous offers he’ll receive from the Yankees or the Red Sox or one of baseball’s other big spenders in a few months’ time. But boy, it’s been fun to watch him pick up and carry two different teams through October the past two seasons, and it would be equally exciting to watch him raise Texas or another franchise to within firing distance of New York and Boston on a yearly basis.

But a longer discussion about Lee’s impending free agency is one for another day. Right now it’s about sitting back and enjoying the show.

Let’s go Rangers, and let’s go Phillies.

Connor Gregoire is a sophomore in the College. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME appears every third issue of HOYA SPORTS.

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