KANSAS CITY -- Forget all that talk of Cliff Lee returning to his old form this season after a hellish '07. Lee has surpassed it. The left-handed Lee's resurgence was once again on display in Thursday's nightcap of a doubleheader at Kauffman Stadium, and this time he outdid himself. Lee foiled the Royals with his fastball, en route to a 2-0 victory and the first shutout of his now-rejuvenated career.
Lee's outing wrapped up a doubleheader and series sweep for an Indians team that has won three straight for the first time this season. All Lee (4-0, 0.28 ERA) allowed were three hits. He walked none and tied a career-high with nine strikeouts. "It went pretty good," Lee said with a shrug. "I felt like I was locating my fastballs, and that's pretty much it. I didn't throw a lot of offspeed pitches. When I could tell they were kind of cheating for the fastball, I would mix one in. But for the most part, I was just trying to locate the fastball." Locating that fastball was once a struggle for Lee. In fact, even when he was at his supposed best from 2004-06, when he won a combined 46 games, struggles with command prevented him from consistently lasting deep into ballgames. In his 18-win '05 season, for example, he went longer than seven innings just four times. This, though, is a new Lee. He's worked at least eight innings in each of his last three starts. "He's done a great job of commanding his fastball," manager Eric Wedge said. "His secondary stuff has worked off that, and that's what you're seeing." Wedge was hoping to see some efficiency from Lee in this particular start. Because while the Indians were happy to come away with a 9-6 win in the first game of the doubleheader, they had to burn their bullpen a bit to do so. Fausto Carmona's five-inning outing forced Wedge to turn to Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, Masa Kobayashi and Rafael Betancourt. With the Indians now in the midst of 13 games in 12 days, the starters will be counted on to ease the pressure on the 'pen. Lee certainly did his part. "For Cliff to go out and pitch the second game under some tough conditions," Wedge said, "I can't say enough about the job he did for his ballclub." The tough conditions Wedge referred to didn't revolve solely around the bullpen issue. Lee also had Brian Bannister to contend with. For six innings, Lee and Bannister were embroiled in the most heated of pitcher's duels. In those six innings, the only hit the Tribe bats mustered off Bannister came in the first, when Travis Hafner reached on a grounder to the right side that could have just as easily been ruled an error on first baseman Billy Butler. Lee, meanwhile, surrendered two hits in that span. He faced the minimum through four innings, with Jose Guillen's leadoff single in the second negated by the double play Lee induced from Butler. In the fifth, Lee found trouble in the form of Guillen's leadoff double, which was misplayed by left fielder David Dellucci. Guillen eventually moved to third on a passed ball by catcher Kelly Shoppach, but Lee didn't fret. He calmly struck out the side -- Butler looking, and Alex Gordon and Miguel Olivo swinging at fastballs up in the zone. "I had to step up right there," Lee said. "It's a 0-0 game, and I can't allow that guy to score. I was lucky they swung through a few high fastballs that they could have taken for balls. Looking back, that was one of the key parts of me having success, was getting out of that." Lee's ability to get out of that jam loomed large when the Indians finally got to Bannister in the seventh. Dellucci ripped the first pitch of the inning over the right-field wall to make it 1-0. The Tribe pushed that lead to 2-0 when Hafner doubled and Asdrubal Came through with a two-out double to right to knock Pronk in. "Dellucci stepped up for us," Wedge said. "You had the sense it was going to be a low-scoring ballgame and one or two runs would get it done, and that's the way it turned out." Lee made sure one or two would get it done. In fact, he looked better as the game wore on, extending his scoreless innings streak to 21. In three road starts, he has yet to allow a run. But one thing Lee had also yet to do, before this outing, was pitch the ninth. Although Lee had reached 104 pitches after eight, Wedge sent him back out there. "I honestly thought I was done after eight, because my pitch count was around 100 or so," Lee said. "But I wanted to go out there, and I'm glad I did. The last couple outings it was the same type of deal, and I didn't go out for the ninth. I guess it helps that we used a few of the bullpen pitchers in the first game." Though Betancourt was warming in the ninth, after Lee gave up a two-out single to David DeJesus, his services wouldn't be needed. Lee got Esteban German to get the final out. But to hear Lee tell it, this astounding April and this particular gem aren't about personal vindication or redemption. "It's a win," he said. "If the team wins, obviously I did my job and did what I was supposed to. It's not like I wanted a shutout for me. It's nice, and I'm glad it happened. But it's all about the team winning."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.