ST. PETERSBURG -- Cliff Lee threw 115 pitches over seven innings Monday night, but the indoor comforts of Tropicana Field had him feeling like he could have kept going. "In a dome, you're basically pitching in air conditioning," Lee said. "You don't sweat as much." And even though the Rays gave Lee plenty of reason to sweat, he remained cool and in control, guiding the Indians to a 5-2 victory in the opener of a three-game set.
Lee turned in a strong, if not efficient, outing to become the American League's first 15-game winner and to help the Tribe improve to a perfect 5-0 against the AL East's best ballclub. In seven innings, Lee had plenty of company surrounding him on the basepaths. He allowed eight hits, walked a pair and hit one batter. But he never buckled. "He made some pitches," manager Eric Wedge said of Lee. "He was back to his old self." It wasn't a long absence. Lee turned in a clunker against the Tigers last week, turning on cruise control with an 8-1 lead and giving up six runs in just five innings of work. This time around, Lee couldn't afford to lose the supreme mental focus that has made him a bona fide Cy Young Award candidate. This game was tight throughout, and the Rays were constantly threatening. Lee (15-2, 2.58 ERA) needed 48 pitches just to get through the first two innings. He left a pair of runners stranded in the first, when he got Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Dioner Navarro to go down in order. And he left the bases loaded in the second, when he got B.J. Upton to fly out to right. "That's when you've got to bear down and really pitch," Lee said. "Anytime you get a guy or two on base and keep him from scoring, that's pretty good and hard to do." Right-hander Matt Garza wasn't as fortunate, when it came to taming the Indians' offense. No one has been able to tame Kelly Shoppach of late. Shoppach came in batting .405 over his last 11 games, and he rode that hot streak into his at-bat in the second inning, ripping an RBI double to left to make it 1-0. The Indians doubled that lead in the third, when Asdrubal Cabrera took Garza deep with a solo shot to right. Those runs were necessary when Lee had his lone hiccup in the fourth. A seven-pitch third inning spared him from what had looked to be an early exit, but, in the fourth, Lee had two on and two out when he left a fastball over the middle to Akinori Iwamura. The pitch was ripped up the middle for a two-run single that tied it up. "I was ahead in the count, and I tried to sneak a fastball by him," Lee said. "That's one thing I wish I would have done differently." Lee didn't have to feel as guilty the following inning, when David Dellucci bailed him out with a two-run homer to right to put the Indians ahead, 4-2. Dellucci's homer was significant not just from the standpoint that it was the 100th of his career but also because he was coming off his first three-hit game of the season. Such contributions have been rare for Dellucci in two seasons with the Tribe, but he's certainly hot at the moment. "Growing up, I never thought I'd hit one home run, much less 100," he said. "It's a sign that you've played a lot of years in the big leagues, I guess." A sign no one saw coming was the steal sign the not-so-fast-footed Jhonny Peralta was given after he walked with two outs in the eighth. Peralta took that sign, made a dash for second with Shoppach at the plate and forced Navarro to make an errant throw from behind the plate. That allowed Peralta to move to third, and he scored on Shoppach's single to put this game away. "We were trying to tack on there," Wedge said, before uttering the obvious. "Jhonny does not have the green light." Once Dellucci's homer cleared the fence, Lee had the green light to victory, and he ran with it. He was also helped considerably by the diving stop Cabrera made on a ball hit by Navarro with two on and two out in the seventh. The grounder surely would have resulted in a run had Cabrera not gotten to it. "That was a big play for us," Lee said. And Lee made some big pitches on a night in which the Rays applied the heat and the air conditioning wiped it away.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.