CLEVELAND -- The eight innings Cliff Lee turned in Friday night against the Twins looked effortless. It was the one inning he didn't pitch that made him sweat. De facto closer Masa Kobayashi gave up a two-run homer to Justin Morneau that sliced a once-comfortable Indians lead down to one precious run, then let the tying run into scoring position. Lee, in position to become the Majors' first 14-game winner, could only look on with a knot in his stomach.
Then, from out of the 'pen, came Lee's savior and, perhaps, the Tribe's new closer. Rafael Perez, with the help of some dazzling defense, retired the last three batters, and made a winner out of Lee and the Indians, who escaped with a 5-4 victory in front of 33,512 fans at Progressive Field. "That," Lee said of Perez's heroics, "was pretty impressive." That's high praise, coming from one of this season's most impressive pitchers. Lee (14-2, 2.29 ERA) turned in the type of outing that has become characteristic of his season, lasting eight innings and allowing just six hits, with no walks and 10 strikeouts. "He was outstanding again," manager Eric Wedge said. "He was efficient, made his pitches and threw downhill. He's pitching with a great deal of confidence right now." Perhaps this should come as no surprise, considering Lee, making a potential Cy Young push, has allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his last nine outings. Tonight was simply more of the same. "I pitched the way I expect of myself," Lee said. "For the most part, I stayed out of hitters' counts. If you do that, good things are going to happen." And when you give a pitcher like Lee early run support, a win seems inevitable. The Indians teed off on Twins starter Livan Hernandez, tagging the right-hander for four runs in the first inning. Grady Sizemore and Jamey Carroll opened the big inning with consecutive singles. Ben Francisco then lifted a fly ball deep to center that Carlos Gomez pulled in with a sensational catch against the wall. Gomez slammed into the wall and crumpled to the ground, allowing Sizemore to tag up and score all the way from second. Gomez had to be taken off the field on a stretcher and was driven to Lutheran Hospital, where he was treated for a lower back injury. The Indians, meanwhile, kept the hits coming. Jhonny Peralta singled, and Shin-Soo Choo followed with a sacrifice fly, to make it 2-0. After Casey Blake singled, Kelly Shoppach brought both remaining runners home with a double to center, to make it 4-0. Just for good measure in the second, Franklin Gutierrez added to the lead with a solo shot off Hernandez -- his first homer since May 27. A 5-0 lead looked safe in Lee's hands, but the Indians missed out on several opportunities to put the game away for good. They had two on with none out in the third, the bases loaded with one out in the fourth and two on with one out in the fifth, and came up empty each time. "We were one hit away," Wedge said. "A hit here or there, and it's three or four runs." Instead, it was a 5-2 lead that Lee handed over to Kobayashi in the ninth, and the game got ugly in a hurry. Kobayashi gave up a single to leadoff man Joe Mauer, then served up a 2-2 fastball to Morneau that was pounded into the right-field seats to make it 5-4. When Delmon Young followed with a double, Wedge had seen enough. Sure, Kobayashi had been named the closer when Joe Borowski was ousted on the Fourth of July, but Wedge had said all along that he would try multiple pitchers in the role, if need be. This was certainly a case of "need be." "It didn't look like [Kobayashi] had it," Wedge said. "It was a great opportunity for Perez, to see how he reacts to that situation." Perez reacted just fine, and he had a little luck on his side, too. Mike Redmond hit a scorching line drive to the right side, but first baseman Ryan Garko was able to reach out and snag it. "That would have been it," Garko said. "They would have scored a run there. Sometimes they hit 'em hard, but right at you. We were pretty fortunate right there." Perez got Brendan Harris to hit a grounder right back to the mound for the second out, then had fortune on his side again when Nick Punto hit a hard grounder back up the middle, after Young had stolen third. The ball nicked Perez's glove as it shot between his legs, and Perez reacted as if he had just served up the winning run. That would not be the case, however, as Asdrubal Cabrera, manning second base after Carroll left with a mild hamstring strain, got to the ball behind the bag and fired to first for the final out. "I thought it was probably going to go through," Perez said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I didn't know Cabrera made the play." Perez certainly made his play for the closer's job with this outing. "We'll continue to use all our guys," Wedge said of the job. "I'm impressed with the way [Ed] Mujica's throwing. We'll look to get Perez more opportunities, and Masa will get the ball as well." Perez might have one teammate in his corner, and his name is Cliff Lee.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.