BOSTON -- The final out looked familiar to the Indians on Tuesday night. As "Dirty Water" began playing on the Fenway Park speakers, the Red Sox erupted in celebration, with players rushing the field, fans' flashbulbs popping and champagne waiting in the home clubhouse. What didn't look so familiar on a night in which the Indians saw their seven-game winning streak snapped and Boston clinch a postseason berth was that "L" next to Cliff Lee's name in the box score.
What was that thing? Word is it stood for the loss Lee took in the 5-4 defeat. It was an unfamiliar symbol for Lee, who hadn't been saddled with one 78 days after winning 11 straight decisions. It could also be a symbol of fatigue, as Lee's amazing 2008 season draws to a close. He has given up 14 runs, 12 of which have been earned, on 30 hits, including four home runs, in his past three outings, only one of which has resulted in a win. "It happens," Lee said. "Every time I got out there, it's more and more innings. I want to get as many as I can. My job is to go as deep into the game as I can and give my team a chance to win. With that, you pile up the innings." And Lee, who has worked 223 1/3 innings after tossing 145 1/3 between the Majors and Minors last season, has racked up the second-highest innings total in the American League this season. Those innings add up after a while. "It's that time of year," manager Eric Wedge said. "That might have something to do with [the downturn in performance], but he's not giving into it." Lee didn't give into it on this night, in which he clearly didn't have his best command, but he didn't get a heck of a lot of help from an Indians offense that couldn't bring home some needed late runs against the Boston bullpen. All the Indians' runs came in a fifth-inning outburst against Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield, who wasn't helped much by his defense. With two on, Grady Sizemore grounded a single past the outstretched glove of first baseman Sean Casey to knock in one run, and Jamey Carroll brought home another on a groundout. Shin-Coo Choo lifted a fly ball to center that a diving Coco Crisp couldn't get a glove on, resulting in an RBI double. Jhonny Peralta then doubled off the Green Monster to score Choo and make it 4-2. The Red Sox had taken a 2-0 lead on Kevin Youkilis' two-run shot off Lee in the fourth, and the Indians had rescued their Cy Young Award candidate. But Lee couldn't hold on to the lead, which was short-lived. With one on in the bottom of the fifth, Lee gave up consecutive doubles to Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia to bring in a pair of runs. Later, with two out and two on, Jason Bay scooted a single past Peralta's diving attempt at short to give the Red Sox a 5-4 lead. "I gave them the lead right back," Lee said. "I've got to do a better job of getting us back in the dugout after we take a lead like that. Unfortunately, I allowed them to score three runs there." Those would be the last runs Lee would allow. He got a double play ball out of Kevin Cash to prevent any damage in the sixth, and he worked a scoreless seventh to keep it close. But Lee's supporting cast couldn't do enough damage against the Red Sox's relief corps to prevent his first loss since July 6. In the seventh, the Tribe loaded the bases against Manny Delcarmen with two out, but Hideki Okajima came in to get Victor Martinez to pop out. And in the eighth, the bases were again loaded with two out -- this time against Justin Masterson and Javier Lopez -- when closer Jonathan Papelbon was brought in to get Carroll to ground into a fielder's choice on the first pitch thrown his way. "The story was the seventh and eighth innings," Wedge said. "You load the bases and don't get anything in a tight ballgame like that, and that's going to be the difference. It proved to be." When Papelbon retired the Indians in order in the ninth with an array of 96-mph fastballs, Lee took home that rare blemish on his record. With the loss, Lee, whose winning percentage is now .880, is no longer in position to record the Majors' highest winning percentage in history for a 20-game winner. That honor will remain with Ron Guidry, who went 25-3 (.893) for the Yankees in 1978. But Lee remains in pretty rare standing. Since 1920, only six other pitchers have started out a season 22-3 or better, according to Stats LLC. The Philadelphia A's Lefty Grove was 23-2 in 1931, the Yankees' Lefty Gomez was 22-3 in 1934, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Preacher Roe was 22-3 in 1951, the Yankees' Whitey Ford was 22-3 in 1961, the Tigers' Denny McLain was 22-3 in 1968 and Guidry was 22-3 in '78. Someday -- and probably soon -- Lee will appreciate that good company. For now, however, he was a bit frustrated with what transpired against the Red Sox -- a team he hadn't faced since the day before his demotion to Triple-A Buffalo in '07. "They're a pretty good team," Lee said, "and they did their job." Lee's been doing his job all year, and his arm might finally be paying the price.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.