Lee tossed his latest postseason gem and Texas won a playoff series for the first time, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1 Tuesday night in a decisive Game 5 on the legs of some daring baserunning.
Lee struck out 11 in a six-hitter for his second win over Rays ace David Price in a series in which the road team won every game - a first in major league history.
"It was a lot of fun, I know that much," Lee said. "We had our back against the wall today and we came out and performed."
The Rangers will host the defending champion Yankees in the opener of the best-of-seven ALCS on Friday night. Texas' three previous playoff appearances ended with first-round losses to New York, in 1996, '98 and '99.
The teams split eight games during the regular season, including Texas' three-game sweep at home in September. Lee beat the Yankees twice in last year's World Series for Philadelphia.
"They're a great team and that's why they are where they are," Lee said. "They're going to be a good challenge, just like these guys."
Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning for Texas, which had been the only active major league franchise that hadn't won a playoff series.
Lee improved to 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA and three complete games in seven career postseason starts, striking out 54 and walking six in 56 1-3 innings. He had 21 strikeouts and no walks in 16 innings against Tampa Bay.
"I don't think you can ask any more of a guy," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
The left-hander, acquired from Seattle in July, threw 90 of his 120 pitches for strikes. He retired his final nine batters and prevented Tampa Bay from completing an improbable comeback after losing the first two games at home.
"He was the Cliff Lee that everybody is used to seeing and he got the job done tonight," said Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, who might have played his last game with Tampa Bay because he can become a free agent after the World Series.
When B.J. Upton popped out to shortstop for the final out, Lee didn't even watch the ball drop into Elvis Andrus' glove. He simply walked toward catcher Bengie Molina and the two hugged as Rangers players poured onto the field to mob them near the plate.
The Rays had the AL's best record this season, giving them home-field advantage in the playoffs. But they lost all three games at Tropicana Field, managing only two runs.
"David pitched fine. We made too many spring training mistakes," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I want to congratulate the Rangers. Spectacular achievement they put forth this season."
A pair of Rangers runners scored from second base on infield grounders - thanks to heads-up baserunning by Andrus and Vladimir Guerrero.
Kinsler batted .444 in the series with three homers and six RBIs. It was the first playoff series victory in the 50-season history of the Washington/Texas franchise.
"It's unbelievable. Something we're proud of because it's never happened in Texas before," slugger Josh Hamilton said. "Hopefully, we can take it to the next level."
Back in the clubhouse, the first round of celebrating was with ginger ale so that Hamilton, who has battled alcohol and drug addiction, could take part. When he left the room, the Rangers brought out champagne.
Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner, allowed five hits in the series opener and beat Price 5-1. Lee fanned Rays slugger Carlos Pena six of the seven times he faced him in the series and finished with an AL division series-record 21 Ks in two games.
"We got him to help us win ballgames. We also got him to do what he did tonight," Washington said. "But he can't do it by himself, and the guys backed him up. They put runs on the board. They played their hearts out."
Texas pitchers struck out 55 in the five games, a record for a division series in either league.
After losing the first two games at Tropicana Field, the Rays rallied to win Games 3 and 4 in Texas to give themselves a chance to join the 1985 Royals, 1986 Mets, 1996 Yankees and 2001 Yankees as the only teams to lose the first two games of a postseason series at home and come back to win the series.
Those 2001 Yankees were the only ones to rally in a best-of-five playoff, bouncing back against Oakland in 2001, when Washington was the Athletics' third base coach.
For the first time since Tampa Bay's final four home games of the 2008 postseason, the tarps from the upper deck at Tropicana Field were removed, boosting capacity in the domed stadium by about 5,000 seats - some with obstructed views.
But a sellout crowd of 41,845 was not enough to keep the Rays' bats from going silent again. Not with Lee on the mound.
Jason Bartlett had three hits but the AL East champion Rays went 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, with the lone hit being Ben Zobrist's RBI single that tied it 1-all in the third.
Price, a 19-game winner in his first full season in the majors, allowed three runs and eight hits in six innings. The Rangers hurt him with two long home runs in Game 1, but did much of their damage this time on ground balls that forced him to cover first base.
Long known for fielding powerful lineups that came up short, the AL West champion Rangers have transformed into a club that turned the tables on the aggressive Rays with pitching and bold baserunning.
"I'm a believer in momentum. I'm a believer that you have to believe you can do it and this club does," Rangers president and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan said. "This club has done it coming out of spring training. Then we were able to put some pieces together to complement the ballclub, and obviously the biggest acquisition was Cliff because he gave us that lead horse in the pitching staff."
The Rangers gave Lee an early 1-0 lead, catching the Rays napping after Andrus led off the game with a single and stole second base. Price coaxed Hamilton into hitting a grounder to first base, and Andrus - running on the pitch - scored from second base when Pena flipped the ball to Price covering the bag and the pitcher didn't turn to check on Andrus in time.
Texas remained aggressive on the bases. The slow-footed Molina stole second on a full-count pitch in the third, his first steal since Sept. 9, 2006, with Toronto.
In the fourth, Nelson Cruz doubled off the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, narrowly missing his fourth homer of the series. He put the Rangers ahead 2-1 when he brazenly stole third - with two outs - and continued home on a throwing error by catcher Kelly Shoppach.
An alert play by Guerrero gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead in the sixth.
With runners at first and second and one out, Kinsler hit a grounder to Pena. The first baseman fielded the ball and threw to second for a force out, but the relay throw to Price covering first was not in time for an inning-ending double play.
Guerrero took off for home, surprising Price, who looked at the umpire for a call before throwing a bit wide toward the plate. Guerrero slid across headfirst to avoid the tag by Shoppach.
The Rangers like their chances against the wild-card Yankees.
"They're the defending champs," third baseman Michael Young said. "You've got to knock the champ off the mountain, and we're excited about the opportunity."
Notes: Lee has held batters to a .185 average in postseason play. He has four postseason games with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks. No other pitcher has more than one. ... This was the first time a division series went the full five games since the Los Angeles Angels beat the Yankees in 2005.