Two months ago it wasn't clear whether 29-year-old lefthander Cliff Lee would be making his starts this season with the Indians or with Triple A Buffalo. His tense battle with Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers to be Cleveland's fifth starter went down to the last week of spring training, but the front office's decision to give Lee the job has made it look even smarter than it did a year ago when Fausto Carmona got the fifth spot. "He's definitely been the best pitcher in baseball," says A's first baseman Mike Sweeney, whose team has totaled one earned run in 14 2/3 innings against Lee in this down-is-up, up-is-down season. "The numbers don't lie."
Through his first seven starts Lee was 6-0 with a 0.67 ERA. Only two other pitchers in the past 60 years had a lower ERA in their first seven starts -- the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela, 0.29 in 1981, and the A's Mike Norris, 0.45 in '80. (Valenzuela went on to win the NL Cy Young Award, and Norris finished 22-9.) Before the Reds tagged him for five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings and his first loss on Sunday, Lee had yielded only four earned runs in 53 2/3 inning.
The key to his early dominance, say teammates and opponents alike, is that his command rivals that of a pitching machine, particularly when throwing a fastball that can reach 94 mph and has a nasty late break. Through Sunday, he had 46 strikeouts and five bases on balls in 59 1/3 innings. "I remember thinking to myself, Man, is this guy ever going to throw a ball down the middle?" says Sweeney, who was 1 for 6 in his two games against Lee this year. "Everything he throws is right on the corner, but it's a strike. When he first came into the league, he had some success but he was pretty one-sided. He threw his fastball inside to almost every righthanded hitter, all day long. Now he's hitting both sides of the plate."
Even with a limited repertoire, Lee, whom the Indians acquired along with centerfielder Grady Sizemore and second baseman Brandon Phillips in a lopsided 2002 trade that sent starter Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos, finished fourth in the 2005 AL Cy Young voting after going 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA. Lee slipped to 14-11 and 4.40 the next season, and agrees with Sweeney that he had stopped fooling batters. "I was a little predictable about what I was trying to do," he says. "Now I'm trying to mix it up more, throwing my fastball in and out, up and down, and throwing my off-speed pitches off of that."
Lee tried to implement that aggressive approach before last season, but he suffered a right abdominal strain early in spring training. He didn't make his first start until May 3, and without an exhibition season in which to properly refine his new style, he was unable to execute it when the games counted. Worse, he couldn't go back to his tried-and-true stuff either. "In my rehab assignments I was trying to work on those new things, and really wasn't working on what had made me successful in the past," Lee says. "Then when I got back to the big leagues, the stuff I used to have wasn't there."
He found that he could no longer pound the inside of the plate, and the result was an ineffective mishmash of the old and the new Lee. Opposing batters teed off on him. "He kind of lost strike-zone command, and when he was on the plate everything seemed to migrate to the middle," says Indians pitching coach Carl Willis. Lee went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA in 20 appearances. "He just lagged the whole year," says teammate C.C. Sabathia, last year's AL Cy Young winner. "He talked about it a lot, couldn't understand why he didn't feel the same as he had before."
Lee's nadir came during a four-start stretch in July in which he allowed 26 earned runs. In the third of those starts, at Texas, the frustrated Lee got into a pair of on-field arguments with his catcher, Victor Martinez. In his next outing Lee was booed off the mound by his home fans after the Red Sox had taken a 7-1 lead in the fifth inning, and he derisively tipped his cap to the crowd. "It was a really, really stupid thing [for me] to do," Lee says. "You're out there competing, and you're at home getting booed... it's not a good feeling." The feeling got worse the next day, when the Indians sent him to Buffalo. He was recalled in September, but he didn't make another start and was left off the playoff roster.
Despite Lee's miserable 2007, the front office felt confident enough in his abilities that Willis took the unusual step of inviting Lee to visit him at his off-season home in Durham, N.C., for two days in January. Lee had dinner with Willis's family, and the two played catch at a high school field. "My main objective was for him to understand that, hey, we believe in you, and that you can be a huge difference-maker for us," says Willis. The coach also told Lee that he still believed in the plan Lee had tried to implement the previous spring, and to stick with it.
While Lee doesn't fully attribute his breakout '08 to that visit -- "They knew and I knew what I needed to do better, but they just wanted to reinforce it and make sure I knew," he says -- opposing batters say that they're seeing a much more confident Lee this season. "I faced Lee in Triple A last year, and I've faced him back in the big leagues this year," says Oakland third baseman Jack Hannahan. "It's like night and day as far as his mound presence and how he carries himself."
On the side of a building that faces Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field in Cleveland, there is a massive Nike billboard that features an image of LeBron James with his arms extended in a Christ-like pose beneath the words we are all witnesses. Now that the Cavaliers have been eliminated from the playoffs, the Indians might want to take over that space, replacing the image of LeBron with one of Lee while keeping the same message. Because indications are that Clevelanders have a new -- and unlikely -- athletic phenomenon to which they should come and bear witness.