Lee lacks '08 form in Opening Day loss

Lee lacks '08 form in opener loss

ARLINGTON -- Let the games begin. And let the unfavorable comparisons between Cliff Lee's 2008 and '09 seasons begin, as well.

The Indians were bracing themselves for a pullback from Lee after his dominant, 22-win season of a year ago. But what happened at the Ballpark in Arlington on Opening Day was uglier than anyone anticipated.

Lee, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, was tattooed by the Rangers on Monday for seven runs in five innings, and a Tribe team that couldn't get anything going against former mate Kevin Millwood saw its season get off to a rough start with a 9-1 loss.

It was not the type of start people have come to expect from Lee, who didn't give up his seventh run of 2008 until his eighth start, on May 18.

"I expect more out of myself," Lee said. "I expect to do a better job than that. Obviously, I'm not happy about that. All I can really do now is prepare for my next start and go from there."

While Lee was rocked, it wasn't a consistent bashing. He retired the first four batters he faced, then saw his outing derail after a Hank Blalock one-hopper struck him in the left forearm with one out in the second. The Rangers went on to bat around the order and score four runs that inning.

But Lee (0-1, 12.60) didn't blame the arm incident, which had prompted head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff and manager Eric Wedge to trot out of the dugout to give him the once-over.

"I could have done without all that [attention]," Lee said. "They're just doing their job and making sure I'm fine. But something's got to be dangling or broken for me to come out of the game."

Such unshakable focus is part of what made Lee so successful last year. Of course, unshakable control of his pitches helped, too, and that was a trait Lee lacked at times in this start.

After Blalock reached on the ball that bounced off Lee's arm, Lee served up a double to Marlon Byrd to put two on with one out. He struck out Chris Davis, but a Jarrod Saltalamacchia grounder to the right side nicked the glove of a diving Victor Martinez at first and scooted into the outfield for a two-run single.

"If Victor lays out and is able to catch that ball," Lee said, "those runs don't score."

They scored, and so did two more runs after an Elvis Andrus double to the right-field corner and an Ian Kinsler single past shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Just like that, it was 4-0.

Lee wasn't the only one to shrug off the direct correlation between the one-hopper off the arm and the runs that followed. Wedge dismissed it, too, and catcher Kelly Shoppach joked that it "might have straightened [Lee] out."

With a scoreless third and fourth, Lee appeared to be straightening out the first Opening Day start of his career. Kinsler doubled off Lee in the fourth, but the lefty struck out the side, regardless.

"Overall," Shoppach said, "I thought he threw the ball pretty well. His line's not going to show that. He didn't throw real well in the second, but, after that, he seemed to throw the ball fine."

Not as fine as Millwood, who held the Indians hitless his first time through the order and scoreless through six frames. Coming off a dismal 2008 season, the slimmed-down Millwood looked and pitched like a different guy in this start. He looked more like the Millwood who led the AL in ERA while with the Indians in '05.

"He has a little bit different approach," Wedge said of Millwood. "He's working a little bit quicker, and he's doing some things with the baseball that I haven't seen him do before. But, like always, he makes pitches. He throws the ball where he wants to, and he's always been a guy who does a good job following his game plan."

Lee's plan was to shake off the second and keep the Indians within striking distance, but that plan didn't come to fruition. In the fifth, he gave up broken-bat singles to Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, then saw his start completely unravel when Blalock lifted an 0-1 fastball into the right-field seats to make it 7-0.

"It's such a tough lineup," Shoppach said. "The inning Blalock hit the home run, we broke four bats in the inning and two of them went for hits. It's a tough lineup, and they can muscle out some hits."

Lee saw what a tough lineup it can be in a March 17 spring exhibition start. That day, the Rangers abused him for 10 runs in 2 2/3 innings, and people truly began to wonder what was wrong with Lee. The questions continued throughout a spring season that saw him post a 12.46 ERA.

Those questions will undoubtedly continue after this game, in which the Rangers piled on with a pair of runs against Jensen Lewis and all the Tribe offense mustered was a run scored on a Millwood wild pitch in the seventh. The Indians have a lot riding on Lee, and the ride was rough on Opening Day.

Still, Lee showed no concern and said he felt good, for the most part.

"All I can do is make pitches," he said. "If they get hits or things happen, that's out of my control. All I can do is locate pitches and force them to swing the bat. I've got to regroup and get ready in five more days."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.