NEW YORK -- Seattle Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair patted Cliff Lee on the rear and walked off the mound Tuesday night, leaving the ball in Lee's hands with the Yankee Stadium crowd in a frenzy and the tying run on deck in the bottom of the ninth.
The biggest question after the game: Will Tuesday be the last time we see Lee on a mound in New York this season?
Lee is the biggest catch on baseball's trade market -- a lights-out lefty who's thrown complete games in three straight starts (the first big leaguer to do so since CC Sabathia in 2008) and has just five walks and 26 earned runs allowed in 95 2/3 innings.
The Mets and Yanks will at the least inquire about obtaining Lee in the coming weeks.
Logic says the Yankees will wait for the winter to make a run at singing Lee as a free agent. The 31-year-old has indicated he wants to test the free-agent market in the offseason and he won't sign an extension with any team that obtains him in a deal.
Lee also is said to be seeking a contract in the neighborhood of the eight-year, $161 million pact that Sabathia inked with the Yankees prior to the 2009 season.
But baseball's hottest trade commodity was a little hot and bothered on Tuesday when discussing the possibility of getting dealt from Seattle.
"Obviously, I do have preferences, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you who I'd like to go to," said Lee, whose contract does not contain a no-trade clause. "I'm not going to consume time talking about it, worrying about it."
The Mariners are reportedly interested in obtaining a top-flight catching prospect in any deal for Lee. That would put the Yankees, who have plenty of young talent at the position (Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine), in a good position to land the 2008 AL Cy Young winner. But Brian Cashman may decide to save his prospects and pursue Lee in the winter.
"We'll be active if things make sense. We'll be dormant if they're not," Cashman said of the team's plans before the trade deadline. "Right now, if I had to look for anything specific, it's the bench. But I'm not actively out there beating the bushes at this moment in time."
"I would say there are 30 clubs who would love to have Cliff Lee, and you could throw how many there are in Japan or any other country," Joe Girardi added. "Obviously, that is not something we talk about openly."
The Mets could offer a package of prospects, including catcher Josh Thole and righty Jenrry Mejia. But Lee, who allowed eight hits and four earned runs in Tuesday's complete-game win, wasn't interested in delving into trade scenarios after the game.
"I'm a Mariner until they tell me something different. It's really that simple," said Lee, who, if traded before the July 31 trade deadline, will have been dealt three times in the past year. "If I wind up somewhere else, I'll go help that team win."
Lee last pitched in the Bronx as a member of the Phillies in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, when he shut down the Yankees in a 6-1 complete-game win. He didn't have his Fall Classic stuff on Tuesday night, but he still slammed the door on the Yankees when it counted. Lee gave up a solo homer to Nick Swisher in the first and walked Jorge Posada in the second inning, snapping a streak of 144 straight hitters faced without a walk. He settled down from there, retiring 10 of the next 12 hitters he faced before Swisher took him deep to lead off the sixth.
He then set down nine straight before Mark Teixeira led off the ninth with a double to left. Lee got Alex Rodriguez to ground out to short -- an out that manager Don Wakamatsu called the biggest of the game -- before Cano singled through the hole at short, scoring Teixeira. Posada followed with a ground-rule double to right-center to score Cano and cut the lead to 7-4.
At that point, Adair came out for a mound visit, but the pitching coach left the ball in Lee's hands to close it out.
It's clear from the way Lee pitched that the trade rumors aren't burdening him between the lines. The only thing that's bothering him? Having to talk about the possibility of being dealt -- again.
Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com