But Lee, who went seven innings without issuing a hit to the Cardinals, was still masterful in the Indians' 3-0 victory in front of 23,644 and a national ESPN audience on Sunday night. His three-hit shutout guided the Tribe to a series victory in the finale of a three-game Interleague set.
Lee's bid to become the first Tribe pitcher to hurl a no-hitter since Len Barker's May 15, 1981, perfect game against the Blue Jays came up slightly short. But Lee still got the better of Chris Carpenter in a scintillating Cy Young showdown, and that's all that seemed to matter to him.
"It was neat to come that close to a no-hitter," Lee said. "But whatever. Maybe I'll get another chance someday."
If he keeps pitching like this, he will.
After walking Brendan Ryan to lead off the game and Albert Pujols with one out in the first, something clicked for Lee. He got into a pattern of first-pitch strikes, kept the Cardinals guessing with a superb changeup and set down 20 straight hitters from the first through the seventh.
"I was just a little off in the first," Lee said. "For whatever reason, I wasn't locating the fastball. As the innings went on, I felt I was able to locate to the corners a little bit. I felt like I had a really good changeup. That was the key pitch for me. I got a lot of outs with it, it kept them off the fastball and I was able to get the fastball on them a little bit."
It really didn't take any defensive wizardry to dispose of the Cardinals during that span. What few balls they hit hard off Lee went directly into the clutches of the defense. The only exception in the game's first seven innings came when Ryan Ludwick smoked a fly ball to right that Choo hauled in on the warning track.
"I thought it was out of the park," Lee said of that ball. "If that's another five or six feet there, [it's gone]."
But it wasn't, and Lee was on his way to a masterful outing. He worked efficiently and he worked confidently after the Indians staked him to an early lead.
In the bottom of the first, Jamey Carroll led off with a walk against Carpenter, the 2005 National League Cy Young Award winner, and Mark DeRosa ripped a 1-2 cutter into the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer.
"Carpenter's throwing the ball as good as anybody," manager Eric Wedge said. "You look at his numbers and they're incredible. For us to score a couple runs off him early, that was big for us, as a unit."
And it was big for Lee, who is aggressive by nature and even moreso with a lead in his back pocket. His lead in this one grew to 3-0 when catcher Kelly Shoppach went deep off Carpenter in the fifth.
Lead in hand, Lee could afford to take more chances. For example, he found himself working around Pujols, who homered three times in the series' first two games, in that first-inning at-bat. But after DeRosa's homer, Lee felt more comfortable throwing strikes to Pujols his next three times up.
"As the game went on, he was coming up with nobody on." Lee said, "And I've got a 2-0 and 3-0 lead, so I can afford to go after him."
In the seventh, Pujols lifted a popup deep to the right side in foul territory, and Choo snagged it away from the outstretched arms of a clearly confused fan. It seemed fate was working in Lee's favor. He retired Ludwick on a 6-3 groundout and got Nick Stavinoha to hit a bouncer to the left side. Third baseman Jhonny Peralta charged in on the ball and made the throw to first for the last out of the seventh.
Lee was six outs away from history. His teammates could sense it. His opposition could sense it. And the fans could certainly sense it.
"The deeper you get into the ballgame," Wedge said, "the deeper you realize something special could happen."
Alas, Molina smacked Lee's first-pitch changeup to right. Choo was playing shallow, and he sprinted back toward the wall. But as the ball descended into the wall Choo appeared to give up hope of catching it and instead focused on making the play off the wall.
Molina was aboard with a double, and Lee, for a moment, was visibly annoyed. But he took a slow saunter around the mound, then went back to work.
Losing the no-hitter was frustrating, but Lee wasn't going to let it lead to him losing the game.
"It's a leadoff double," he said. "It's a 3-0 game. If he's going to score, I've got to make them manufacture it. I can't give up another hit."
Lee got through the rest of the inning unscathed. Colby Rasmus moved the runner over on a groundout to second, Tyler Greene struck out looking and Skip Schumaker was retired on a groundout to short.
In the ninth, Lee's hopes of becoming the first Tribe pitcher to throw a one-hitter since Billy Traber in 2003 were also dashed when he gave up a leadoff single to Brendan Ryan. Ludwick added a two-out single, but Lee got Stavinoha to fly out to right to put the finishing touch on a masterpiece.
"He pitched very well tonight," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "As the game went on, we got fewer and fewer pitches to hit. He deserved to win."
A no-hitter it was not. But Lee had done what he came to do, pitching the Tribe to its third straight series victory.
"I was excited about how I was locating the ball and pitching, so I wanted to stay in that same mindset," Lee said. "I never got caught up in having a no-hitter. It didn't even bother me when I gave up the hit. I was just trying to put up a zero and give the team a chance to win."