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05/08/08 12:26 AM ET
Lee locks up perfect 6-0 record
Lefty has worked 28 consecutive innings without issuing a walk
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- If Cliff Lee keeps this up, his start on Wednesday night won't be his last at historic Yankee Stadium. After all, the vaunted ballpark will be hosting this summer's All-Star Game. Lee, looking more and more like an All-Star starter in the making, went head to head with fellow undefeated hurler Chien-Ming Wang on Wednesday and dominated again. Lee's seven shutout innings were instrumental in the Indians grabbing a 3-0 victory and further proof that his early-season roll might not be a streak so much as a sign of things to come. "I don't want to get caught up in it," Lee said. "I can't pat myself on the back. I've got to focus on my next start." That being said, Lee (6-0, 0.81 ERA) has plenty of reason to applaud his own efforts. Lee is six starts into the season, and it's hard to find a flaw. He has worked 44 1/3 innings, given up just four earned runs on 25 hits, walked just two batters and struck out 39. Even Bob Gibson's famed 1968 season, in which the Cardinals' right-hander set the record for the lowest ERA in the live-ball era (1.12) and won the National League MVP award, didn't start this good. Through six starts in '68, Gibson was 3-1 with a 1.31 ERA, eight earned runs allowed on 35 hits, 12 walks and 36 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched. "I don't think you ever expect somebody at this level to do what [Lee] is doing," manager Eric Wedge said. "He's proven he's capable of this. It's not just one or two starts." This start was viewed as an intriguing test for Lee. His first five outings came against the not-so-imposing lineups offered up by the A's, Twins, Royals and Mariners. So a matchup with the Bronx Bombers was Lee's litmus. Furthermore, he had a date with Wang, who came in at 5-0, which made for an intriguing storyline. Not that Lee cared much. "It really doesn't matter who the opposing pitcher is," he said. "I just want to put up zeros, get as deep in the game as I can and give my team a chance to win." From the outset, he looked poised to do just that. First off, he had some early backing from his offense, beginning with Victor Martinez's sacrifice fly in the first. In the fourth, Casey Blake ripped a ground-ball single through the right side to score Jhonny Peralta from second and make it 2-0. It became a three-run lead in the fifth, when David Dellucci knocked in a run with a line-drive single up the middle. With a lead in hand, Lee won this game the way he's won all his starts this season. He had precise command of his fastball, stayed ahead in the count and kept the Yanks off the bases. "He was throwing strikes, and we couldn't be too patient with him, because he wasn't walking anybody," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who went 0-for-3 off Lee. "He wasn't trying to fool us. He came after us. Probably the biggest thing for him is his control." That's obvious in the fact that Lee has now worked 28 consecutive innings and faced 101 consecutive batters without issuing a walk. But though control has been a mechanical strong suit for Lee, Wedge has been equally impressed with the left-hander's mental approach. "Sometimes you've got to gather yourself and take a second to slow things down," Wedge said. "I think he's done a fantastic job of that this year. It's part of him maturing as a Major League pitcher." Lee had to show that maturity in the fifth, when he gave up consecutive singles to Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano with one out. He took a deep breath and quickly recovered, striking out Morgan Ensberg and getting Jose Molina to fly out to right. "That was a big part of the game," Lee said. "One pitch there could tie the game. I really needed to bear down and execute efficiently." He had to do that again in the sixth, when the Yanks had two runners in scoring position with two out and Hideki Matsui coming up. After peppering Matsui with fastballs to get the count to 1-2, Lee tossed a sweeping curveball that Matsui swung through for the final out. "I had thrown him a couple of fastballs away," said Lee, who has yet to allow a run on the road this season. "He wasn't really getting around on it. [The curveball] is not a pitch you want to throw for a strike to hit. But if I keep it down, it's an effective pitch." Effective pitches are Lee's specialty these days. And his dominant start is even more impressive when you consider the doldrums he found himself in last season, when he was demoted from the rotation in late July, spent a month in Triple-A Buffalo and wasn't even considered for the Tribe's postseason roster. "Talk about toughness," Wedge said. "He's a guy who had to re-establish himself. He was dedicated to his work and his mind-set this offseason." The 29-year-old Lee never doubted that he could return to big league prominence. But these numbers? Not even he could conjure them up. "If you would have showed me what my stats are right now [before the season began]," he said, "I probably would have had a hard time believing they'd come true. But when things are clicking for a pitcher, it's hard to hit." And in the Majors right now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a hurler harder to hit than Clifton Phifer Lee.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.