Turning Over A New Lee-f

After hitting rock bottom, Lee turns career around

CLEVELAND—Cliff Lee had his mind set. He was not going back to the minor leagues.

"I absolutely have no desire to pitch in Buffalo ever again,'' the Cleveland Indians lefthander defiantly said in spring training as the 2008 season got under way, promptly drawing the line in the sand.   

He was a new Lee, and this was a new season.

The veteran pitcher had made up his mind to shove his disastrous 2007 season behind him and put away for good any thoughts of another minor league learning stint.

And as far as the 30-year old was concerned, his 5-8 record and bloated 6.29 ERA that landed him in pitching purgatory at Triple-A Buffalo in midseason 2007 began with an abdominal strain that cost him all of spring training and the first month of the regular season.

It was an injury that set him back all season, with Lee trying to play a game of catch-up that he would never win. An injury that rendered him useless on the bench and off the postseason roster as the Indians made a playoff run that ended a game shy of reaching the World Series. It was an injury that resulted in his name floating around in trade rumors all throughout the offseason.

With the goal of a completely different 2008, Lee focused all offseason on two main points: abdominal exercises that strengthened his core and controlling the mental aspect of the game.

Put simply, Lee vowed to pitch more efficiently. He insisted he would use pinpoint fastball command while confidently utilizing his breaking pitches so that his secondary stuff played up all the more. He also made clear that he would back off and slow the game down when things didn't go his way, instead of ramping up and pitching out of control.

"When I saw things starting to go bad, I slowed the game down,'' Lee said. "I took a step back, took a deep breath and tried to catch it even before it turned bad. When I got (behind the batter) in a 1-0 count, 2-0 count or 3-0 count, I made more of a conscious effort to step off (the mound), relax and slow the game down.''  

As simple as it sounds, that is how Lee reinvented himself this season to become the Indians first 20-game winner since Gaylord Perry in 1974.

He finished 22-3, 2.54 in 31 starts with an American League-leading ERA despite pitching on a team that had given up the 2008 campaign by midseason by unloading top-name players for prospects. In essence, it was the formula that led Lee from being an afterthought the season before to the American League Comeback Player of the Year and a favorite to win the league's Cy Young Award.

"His focus was the main difference,'' Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "It was so much better from pitch-to-pitch. Once he got going, he really got going.''

He was a new Lee from the get-go when he started the season 6-0, 0.81 over his first six starts. He was a dominating, not finessing Lee, who racked up 170 strikeouts and walked just 34 batters.  

He was even more impressive when he tossed two scoreless innings as the AL starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.  And, to be honest, he was the beneficiary of an offense that averaged 6.13 runs a game.   

Throughout the season, his explanations were simple, boring even, as writers tried to figure out exactly how Lee had gone from one extreme to the other in the span of a season.

"I just do my job and keep it simple,'' the plain-spoken Lee often said, leaving many shaking their heads in wonderment and shrugging shoulders in disbelief that it could really be that easy.   

But that's exactly what Lee did, breaking the game down into one bit of controllable piece after another.

Focusing only on today's game, not tomorrow's. Focusing from inning to inning, pitch to pitch. Focusing so consistently, it didn't matter if he were pitching in a day or night game, at home or on the road, against a hot division foe or cellar-dweller going nowhere.    

In the end, Lee remained healthy all season and managed to tame the power of the mind. Now, the question becomes can he do it again?  Can Lee possibly maintain such consistency another year? How about one year after another as he looks to take over the Tribe's role of ace with fellow lefty C.C. Sabathia gone?

Considering Lee's outstanding 2008 season, who'd want to bet against him?