CLEVELAND -- Cliff Lee admits he can't throw much of a knuckleball. Not that he hasn't tried. "[Scott] Sauerbeck and I throw them every day, just fooling around," Lee said, "I would never throw one [in a game], unless I was in a different stage of my career, maybe."
So when Lee was pitted opposite veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield on Wednesday night, he had to stick with his usual repertoire. That worked out just fine for the Indians, who rode Lee's strong performance to a 7-1 win over the Red Sox in front of 21,575 at Jacobs Field. With a three-game losing streak at hand and a beleaguered bullpen in the wings, Lee knew he needed to deliver a solid start. But he didn't put any more pressure on himself than usual. "My approach is still the same, no matter what," he said. "I'm just trying to keep the other team from scoring." That simple attitude paid off for Lee throughout an 18-win 2005 season, and it has continued to work out well for him in the early going this season. Of course, it helps when a teammate such as Jhonny Peralta is cranking out a three-run home run in the first inning to assist your cause. Lee took the momentum from that early drive into six strong innings of work, during which he allowed just one run on four hits with four walks and seven strikeouts. "He made big pitches when he had to," manager Eric Wedge said. "For him to get us six innings and stay strong was a separator for us." Peralta's home run, which was set up by a leadoff walk from Grady Sizemore and a single from Jason Michaels, gave the Tribe some early separation from the Red Sox in the run column. As is customary when facing Wakefield, Peralta was looking for a knuckleball in the at-bat. Turns out, he was served a fastball, which he promptly lofted over the left-field wall to make it 3-0. "I got a big surprise," Peralta said of the fastball. That was pretty much the last surprise Wakefield offered on this night. "He threw the fastball to me," Peralta said, "and after that, I think he threw the knuckleball the rest of the way." That was bad news for former Indian Josh Bard, who is Wakefield's full-time catcher. Bard has been having trouble picking up on Wakefield's knuckler, and that trouble gained steam in this game, as he let four passed balls get by him. The Indians took advantage of Bard's misfortune en route to tacking on a run in the fourth, when Victor Martinez scored from third on a passed ball, and another in the sixth, when Martinez moved to third on a passed ball, then scored on Aaron Boone's RBI double to make it 6-1. Wedge said his players knew to be on the lookout for passed balls. "You can't take anything for granted or assume anything, but you have to be prepared for it," he said. The Red Sox didn't look prepared for what Lee had to offer. Though he worked himself into some jams with the walks, he consistently found a way to get out of the inning. "He pounds the zone," Bard said of Lee. "He has got some deception, and he always seems to wiggle out of those big innings. He did that again tonight." Lee's biggest success in that department came in the third, when the Red Sox loaded the bases with two outs for David Ortiz. The two left-handers, Lee and Ortiz, fought to a 2-2 count, then Lee got Big Papi swinging at strike three to end the inning. And to think, Lee missed the location he was looking for with the pitch. "I've never had that kind of luck against him," Lee said of Ortiz. "I missed my spot, but he's out, and I'm happy. That happens sometimes. You get away with it." It was debatable whether the Indians would get away with a win when Lee handed the 6-1 lead over to the bullpen, which has suffered well-documented struggles of late. But Jason Davis, who's quickly emerged as a steady late-inning arm, pitched two outstanding innings of scoreless relief, and Bob Wickman made it rather uneventful in the ninth to finish the Red Sox off. That satisfied Lee, who will probably never be completely satisfied with his knuckleball. "Every once in a while," he said, "I'll throw a good one, but not as good as Wakefield's." That's OK. Lee's regular stuff worked just fine on this night.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.