Lee back on track, leads Tribe to win
Lefty has career-high nine strikeouts in eight strong innings
CLEVELAND -- Cliff Lee didn't have an answer.
But whether it was the early afternoon daylight, an aggressive Devil Rays offense or something he was doing, Lee realized early Sunday afternoon that his curveball was a destructive pitch.
"Whatever the reason," Lee said, "I knew it was going to be a good pitch for me."
So good that Lee struck out the side to open the game and dominated the next seven innings as the Tribe topped Tampa Bay, 3-2, in front of 30,410 at Jacobs Field.
The victory gave the Indians their fourth straight win, but more importantly, it sent a clear message that Lee officially is back.
The resurgent left-hander gave up just one run on four hits over eight innings while equaling a career high with nine strikeouts.
"Real good effort by Cliff," manager Eric Wedge said.
After a rutted debut to his season, Lee is 3-0 with a 2.77 ERA over his last four starts.
On a day when the offense didn't come through with its usual output, putting up eight hits and wasting several opportunities, Lee made it matter little. Regularly working ahead in the count with a precision fastball and the Rays unable to touch his curve, the 28-year-old left-hander was at his best.
"I'm starting to get where I'm used to going out there every five days and feeling like I'm part of the team," Lee said. "Before I wasn't doing what was expected out of me. I feel like I'm in that groove and things are starting to work."
That groove certainly became evident early, when Lee needed just 13 pitches to punch out Akinori Iwamura, Brendan Harris and Carl Crawford, the Rays' top three hitters in the first inning.
"I knew the curveball was working pretty good after the first," Lee said. "I don't know if it's because it was a day game and it's hard for them to pick up the spin or what."
There had to be some reason for all the Ks, right? Lee came in having not once struck out more than six in a game this year, and he was averaging fewer than four per outing.
A start in which he struck out eight of the first 17 hitters he faced certainly wasn't by design.
"Honestly," Lee said, "I'd rather get them to swing at the first pitch and get them out that way."
So maybe it was just as simple as Lee having a good day. But like he said, no matter the reason, "they really weren't making good swings against me."
And just how bad exactly were those swings?
Consider that besides Carlos Pena's second-inning homer into the right-center-field stands, it was not until the eighth inning that a Tampa Bay hitter reached second base.
Then again, perhaps it's best not to get too carried away. The Tribe's swings against Devil Rays ace James Shields weren't much better.
Jhonny Peralta lined a homer into the left-field bleachers, and Grady Sizemore singled home a run in the seventh, but there was little else. The Tribe's third run came on an error in a sixth inning that characterized an afternoon of missed opportunities.
Casey Blake and Peralta led the inning off with singles before Tampa Bay second baseman Josh Wilson's throwing error on Travis Hafner's grounder brought Blake home. But Ryan Garko then struck out, Hafner was caught stealing and Jason Michaels ended the inning with a strikeout.
It was the same scenario in the second inning. The Tribe loaded the bases with no outs, but three straight strikeouts later, no damage had been inflicted.
Perhaps the offense's frustration was best illustrated by Kelly Shoppach snapping his bat over his knee after striking out for the third straight time in the seventh inning.
Of course, it also illustrated that there's more to the game than offense.
Shoppach perhaps made the game's most critical play in a tense ninth inning.
The scenario saw a pair of Devil Rays singles and a sacrifice fly to start the inning make it a one-run game. So Tampa Bay sent Dustan Mohr in as a pinch-runner, and with one out, he took off for second.
Not a smart move. Shoppach nailed him, catching his second runner of the game. Game over. At least it felt that way.
"He saved the game for us," Wedge said. "I love the way these kids don't get their dauber down. If one area of their game's a little off, they still play both sides of the ball. Shoppach's contributions were way strong ... a difference-maker."
It all made for Lee's fifth win landing safely in the books.
The way Lee pitched, it could be no other way.
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.