TORONTO -- The Indians haven't had a 20-game winner in 34 years. Allow catcher Kelly Shoppach to add a little perspective to that note. "The majority of us in here," Shoppach said, looking out at the Indians' clubhouse, "aren't 34 years old."
Cliff Lee, 20 days shy of his 30th birthday, is in that group. And the way he's pitched in 2008 lends plenty of reason to believe the dubious stretch between Gaylord Perry's 21-win season in 1974 and the present day might finally come to a close. With eight scoreless innings in Sunday's 4-0 win over the Blue Jays -- a win that completed a three-game sweep at Rogers Centre -- Lee moved a step closer to erasing that drought, to say nothing of his ongoing bid to become the Tribe's second American League Cy Young Award winner in as many years. Ask Lee about either potential feat, and he'll give you the same humdrum response he's offered so many other times this season. "I just worry about my next start," Lee said, "and what I have to do to give myself the best chance to win." But don't knock Lee (16-2, 2.45 ERA) for such monotonous quotes. His "one game at a time" approach is precisely what's made him worthy of national attention in an Indians season that lost much of its intrigue long ago. Lee's storyline has been intriguing all season. The mere fact that he won a job in the Indians' starting rotation after his demotion to Triple-A Buffalo in July of 2007 was dramatic enough. Now that he's pitched his way into consideration for an elite accolade such as the Cy Young, each of his outings takes on a new and more heightened dimension. Yet if you ask those in the Indians' clubhouse about Lee, they'll insist he's basically the same guy now that he was during that humbling experience last year, aside from one notable change. "The difference you see is his mental discipline and focus on the mound," manager Eric Wedge said. "You saw it a couple times today." A couple, maybe, but not many. While the Jays did notch eight hits off Lee, four of them came with two outs and none on. Lee was in danger of surrendering all or most of a 3-0 lead when John McDonald singled and Marco Scutaro reached on a bunt to open the bottom of the fifth. But he got David Eckstein to ground into a fielder's choice and Alex Rios to ground into an inning-ending double play. Lee's command has been nearly spotless all season, and it was particularly strong in this win. Of the 104 pitches he threw, only 21 went for balls. "He throws so many strikes," Shoppach said, "he really just wears you out." The Indians' hitters wore out Jays starter Scott Richmond after only five innings. They didn't blow the game open, but they did get two quick runs in the first -- on an RBI double from David Dellucci and an RBI single from Jhonny Peralta -- and another in the third, when Shin-Soo Choo ripped his second of three doubles and Ryan Garko drove him in with a single. One negative on the offensive end -- albeit a humorous one -- was Shoppach's 0-for-5 day in which he struck out four times. The humor came after his third strikeout against Richmond, when Shoppach snapped the bat over his right knee as he walked back toward the Tribe's dugout. "I thought it was pretty funny, to be honest," Lee said. If Shoppach's wife, Jennifer, was watching, she probably wasn't laughing. "Some people think it's cool, but my wife hates it," Shoppach said. "She thinks I look like a baby." Shoppach's troubles aside, the 3-0 lead the Indians had built for Lee was more than enough for him to become the AL's first 16-game winner. Lee remained effective into and through the eighth, but Wedge opted to not have him pitch the ninth, because he had thrown 115 pitches in his last start against the Rays in St. Petersburg. But it's worth noting that Lee was working on six days' rest, having been bumped back a day when Anthony Reyes joined the rotation. That change drew the ire of fans who were hoping to see a Lee-Roy Halladay matchup Saturday in what would have been a head-to-head battle of two of the league's top Cy Young candidates. This lone series won't decide the winner of the award, of course, but Lee certainly outdueled Halladay in it. In fact, Indians starters, as a whole, were tremendous in the three games in the Great White North, as Reyes, Paul Byrd and Lee combined to allow just four runs in 23 1/3 innings. "I felt it was a solid all-around series for our ballclub," said Wedge, whose club went 5-4 on the road trip. "It starts with those starting pitchers giving us a chance to win the ballgame." Lee, following his credo, has been giving the Indians that chance all season. And if not for four no-decisions in which he allowed two runs or less, he'd be at the vaunted 20-win mark already. Lee said he didn't know it's been 34 years since a Tribe pitcher won 20 games. Nor did he care. He's not caught up in the past and his mind is firmly fixed on the future. "Things flow better when you're having success," he said. And no one on the Indians has had a season with more flow or more success than Lee.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.