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May 18, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Lightning in a Bottle, Thunder in the Bronx

by John Perrotto

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Cliff Lee says he has not discovered any kind of magic formula or developed a new pitch or altered his workout routine this season. "I'm pretty much the same pitcher I've always been," the Cleveland Indians left-hander insisted. "I'm just on a pretty good roll."

That would be the understatement of understatements. Lee is off to one of the best starts of any pitcher in baseball history. Lee, 29, takes a 6-0 record and a 0.67 ERA through seven starts into today's marquee matchup at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati against Reds right-hander Edinson Volquez, who is 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA after eight stats. Lee leads the major leagues in SNLVAR with 2.8, but Volquez is right behind him at 2.6.

Only two major league pitchers in the last 60 years have had a better ERA than Lee through their first seven starts of a season: Fernando Valenzuela had a 0.29 mark for the 1981 Dodgers and Mike Norris stood at 0.45 for the 1980 Athletics. Lee has allowed only five runs, four earned, and 32 hits in 53 2/3 innings while compiling a phenomenal 44/4 strikeout/walk ratio.

Asked again for an explanation, Lee deflects credit for the hot start. "It's been a lot of things," he said. "The guys have played great defense behind me all season. We have a lot of Gold Glove-type players on this team and it makes it a lot easier for me. I can let the hitters put the ball in play because I know plays are going to be made behind me. I don't have to try to strike everyone out. I've also had my share of luck. Some balls that have been hit hard have been right at guys. On my end, the biggest thing is that I've been throwing strikes. If you throw strikes, you always give yourself a chance as a pitcher."

Lee takes a streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings into today's start and pitched nine shutout inning in his last outing Monday against the Blue Jays, a game the Indians lost 3-0 in 10 innings. He has also had a streak of 27 consecutive shutout innings this season and a stretch where he went 28 innings without a walk. Furthermore, Lee has held opponents scoreless in 51 of the 53 full innings he has worked, and retired the side in order 36 times.

No wonder Indians pitching coach Carl Willis says that the only thing he does when Lee takes the mound is sit in the dugout and eat sunflower seeds. "I don't know what to compare it to," Willis said. "Cliff is so locked in He's repeating his delivery. His focus is unbelievable. His confidence right now is way up there. It reminds me of C.C. (Sabathia) late last year. I'd go out to the mound to talk to C.C. and he felt whatever the right pitch was to throw in that situation that he could throw it for a strike. That's the way Cliff is now-he's confident he can throw any of his pitches for strikes any time he needs to."

Last season, Sabathia became the first Indians pitcher since Gaylord Perry in 1972 to win the American League Cy Young award, and Lee is certainly the early favorite this year. What makes Lee's story most remarkable, though, is that he was just 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA in 20 games, 16 starts, last season, had a 0.2 SNLVAR and was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo for two months at midseason. Though he returned to the major leagues in September, he was left off of the post-season roster as the Indians came within one win of the World Series before losing to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Lee had to win a job in the Indians' rotation this spring, beating out fellow lefties Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers. Lee suffered a strained muscle in his side during spring training last year and said it affected him throughout the 2007 season. "I never got into any kind of rhythm," Lee said. "My mechanics were off all season, and that caused me to have trouble throwing strikes."

Lee could have easily switched team in the offseason as the Indians offered to a variety of teams in trade talks. However, he is still with the Indians and happy about that. "This is where I want to be," Lee said. "I've spent my whole major-league career with the Indians. I'm very happy here. It's a great team to pitch for. I don't know if I would be having this kind of success somewhere else."

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Despite having the highest payroll in the major leagues at $209 million to start the season, the Yankees continue to stumble along with a 20-23 record. That caused co-chairperson Hank Steinbrenner to rip into his club this past week and question its heat as the Yankees were losing three of four to the surging Rays in St. Petersburg. However, after he cooled down, Steinbrenner made it clear that he is not giving up on the season or conceding the Yankees will fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

"I think we're going to make a big run," Steinbrenner told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I guarantee you we're going to make a run. We have too much talent to not do that. We had the best offense in baseball last season. You can't tell me we can take as big a step back as we have from last season to this season."

The Yankees led the major leagues with 5.98 runs a game last season, but rank 11th in the AL this season at 4.12. In large part, that's a product of having third baseman Alex Rodriguez and catcher Jorge Posada on the disabled list, but Hank Steinbrenner feels there's more to it than that. "I think we've looked pretty flat," he said. "I've made that clear. What the reason is, I don't know. I don't think they know. Being flat doesn't necessarily mean that they're not giving effort, but they have to snap out of it."

Lethargic teams are usually a poor reflection on their manager. However, Steinbrenner said he has no regrets by essentially forcing Joe Torre to walk away after 12 seasons last October by offering him a one-year, incentive-laden contract then hiring Joe Girardi as manager. "Joe [Girardi] is playing with the deck he's been dealt," Steinbrenner said. "I don't back down from one thing I've seen about him from the beginning. He's going to be one of the great ones. I mean that."

Even if the Yankees continue to struggle, Steinbrenner insists he will stay the course with the current roster. "I'll make judgments at the end of the season," he said. "I'm not doing what my dad did and just tear apart everybody. I thought what I said was constructive criticism and stating the obvious. (The players) are paid tremendous amounts of money. That may not mean anything in the media because they're not paying it but it means something to me. They have to start earning it."

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Rumors had been rampant since the Mitchell Report was released last December that Peter Magowan might be eventually forced out as the Giants' managing partner because of the organization's failure to prohibit clubhouse access to Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' personal trainer, who was eventually sent to prison for selling steroids. That talk went from rumor to tangible when Magowan announced Friday that he is indeed retiring at the end of the season following a run that saw him put together a group that bought the Giants and saved them from moving to St. Petersburg in 1992 and privately finance the building of AT&T Park.

Magowan said he was not nudged into retirement by Commissioner Bud Selig. However, he also sharply criticized Senator George Mitchell's investigation into performance-enhancing drugs, though he cannot comment specifically on Bonds because the all-time home run leader remains under federal indictment on perjury charges. "When the facts are wrong, especially when I feel I don't have a way to defend myself because of certain reasons, and they're still out there and increase over time, that I do think is unfair, and it does bother me," Magowan told the San Jose Mercury News. "I thought I had one legitimate chance to tell it to one fair man, I did tell it and it didn't show up. I feel, I don't know, a little frustrated, maybe even a little sad about that."

Selig has said officials named in the report would be penalized by being subjected to community service. Magowan said he did not know how that would apply in his case. "I'm not worried about what Bud is going to do," Magowan said. "In my view we all made mistakes. We all could have been more vigilant. The Giants have admitted to not being as vigilant as we wished we should have been, but we are in no different position than any other team in baseball. We were all lax. We all made mistakes. Because we had a more prominent player involved or was close to BALCO than some other team or other lab doesn't justify the kind of attention we got."

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Speaking of retirement, the Padres' only trip to Chicago this past week meant a lot of questions about whether it would be right-hander Greg Maddux' last visit to Wrigley Field, where he pitched for the Cubs from 1986-92 and 2004-06. In typical Maddux fashion, he was coy about the matter. "Could be, who knows?" the 350-game winner said.

Beyond speculation about the 42-year-old's future in general, there has been plenty of speculation about whether he will be traded since already all but out of the National League West race. Maddux was non-committal about that as well. "I don't have any control over the future, so I can't really look into it," Maddux said. "Who knows?"

However, Maddux did say that the Padres' place in the standings does not necessarily mean he wants to leave San Diego. "Everyone thinks you have to win to enjoy it," Maddux said. "Winning makes you enjoy it more. I love playing in San Diego. It's the perfect situation for me, an hour from home. I've been trying to get here since 1992. Am I thinking about what happens in July or August or next year? I'm worried about my next start."

Maddux has a 1.1 SNLVAR this season and Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley says Maddux is still very effective. "I think he is future is open-ended," Balsley told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I think he can pitch and win as long as he wants to. His command and movement is a great recipe to get hitters outs. It's hard to put into words how mentally tough he is. His baseball IQ is off the charts and his coordination as an athlete… if something is off, he can fix it immediately. He's not just a great pitcher, he's a great baseball player."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: Lost in Magowan's retirement announcement was that Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said he thinks his team can contend in the NL West this season and does not plan to trade the many veterans that still dot the San Francisco roster. … Another surprise revelation is that Astros owner Drayton McLane is still willing to welcome Roger Clemens back into the rotation if The Rocket gets his legal situations resolved. The Astros also plan to stick with catcher J.R. Towles and center fielder Michael Bourn despite their offensive struggles. … Mets manager Willie Randolph's job is no in imminent danger despite the clubhouse discord and speculation surrounding his situation. … The Rockies will consider shaking things up if it doesn't get back into the NL West fairly soon, and that means Matt Holliday, Brian Fuentes, and Garrett Atkins could go on the trading block. They are also considering giving Ryan Spilborghs the full-time job in center field and benching Willy Taveras. … The Braves are considering going to a co-closer arrangement once Rafael Soriano and John Smoltz return from the disabled list. … Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez's surgically repaired shoulder is bothering him quite a bit, and part of the reason for his sub-par offensive and below-average defense so far this season. … One scout who watched Volquez recently said he may have the best breaking stuff of any NL starter this season. The same scout also said Phillies right-hander Brett Myers' problem is that he is leaving too many 88 mph fastballs over the heart of the plate.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Rays are having the greatest success of their 11-year history, but the feeling still looms around the franchise that it will be moved to Charlotte or Portland in the next few years if they are unable to secure financing for a new waterfront ballpark in St. Petersburg. … There is plenty of grumbling in the clubhouse of the underachieving Mariners, much of it coming from the pitchers who claim they have communications problems with catcher Kenji Johjima, and that could eventually spell to the end for manager John McLaren. … While Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell gets raves for his managerial potential, there are many in the organization who believe ultra-organized bench coach Brad Mills deserve the chance to get a crack at being a major league skipper. Meanwhile, the Red Sox decision to take a flier on Bartolo Colon appears ready to pay off, as the former Cy Young Award winner's fastball has been clocked at 97 mph at Triple-A Pawtucket. … As much as Tigers slugger Gary Sheffield would prefer to play left field, his throwing arm is so weak after off-season surgery that manager Jim Leyland is likely to have no choice but play him at designated hitter, except in interleague games. … The Twins could soon call up a blast from the past from Triple-A Rochester to strengthen their bullpen: former All-Star Danny Graves. … Twins right-hander Livan Hernandez wants to take a shot at becoming a professional golfer if his pitching career ever ends.

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Interesting facts as Week Seven comes to a close:

  • Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb has won his first nine starts, the first time anyone has done that in franchise history, and the best streak to begin a season in the major leagues since Andy Hawkins won 10 straight for the 1985 Padres.
  • Indians starting pitchers had a streak of 44 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings snapped Wednesday, the longest in franchise history since Bob Lemon, Gene Bearden, Sam Zoldak, and Satchel Paige combined for 47 in August, 1948. It was also the longest streak in the major leagues since Baltimore's Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Ross Grimsley combined for 54 shutout innings from September 1-7, 1974.
  • The Indians had four shutouts in a five-game span between Monday and Thursday. The last major league team to have more was the 1995 Orioles, who ended the season with five in a row as Mike Mussina won twice and Scott Erickson, Kevin Brown, and Ben McDonald also notched victories.
  • Mariners left-hander Jarrod Washburn worked a scoreless bottom of the 12th inning to get the save over the Rangers on Wednesday in his first relief appearance since July 22, 1999, when he pitched for the Angels in a 9-7 loss to the Rangers in which John Burkett beat Steve Sparks.
  • Left-hander Jon Lester started 10 of the Red Sox's first 42 games this season, becoming only the seventh Boston lefty to share that distinction since 1956, joining Frank Viola (1992), Bruce Hurst (1984, 1986-88), John Tudor (1983), Bill Lee (1974-75), Gary Peters (1970-71), and Dick Ellsworth (1968).
  • Braves third baseman Chipper Jones had 61 hits and 11 home runs through 39 games this season, only the fourth NL player since 1960 to have at least 60 hits and 10 homers in less than 40 games, joining Billy Williams of the 1964 Cubs, Lou Brock of the 1967 Cardinals, and Larry Walker of the 1997 Rockies. The last Braves player to accomplish the feat was Hank Aaron, in 1959.
  • Mussina, now with the Yankees, is 51-20 in his career in a May for a .718 winning percentage. Only two other AL pitchers with at least 30 wins in the month have ever had a higher winning percentage in May, Lefty Grove (.761, 67-21) and Rube Waddell (.721, 31-12).
  • Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun is the first player in history to have 40 doubles and 40 home runs within the first calendar year of his major league debut. Braun, who was called up last May 25, has 40 doubles and 45 homers. Reds right-hander Edinson Volquez has allowed one earned run or less in each of his first eight starts this season, becoming only the fourth pitcher to do that along with Mike Norris for the 1980 Athletics, Dana Fillingham for the 1918 Braves, and Dutch Leonard for the 1914 Red Sox. Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander is 1-7 this season after going 18-6 last year. He is only the fourth pitcher to start a season 1-7 after winning at least 12 games the previous year along with Eddie Ciccotte (28-12 for the 1917 White Sox), Jim Kaat (25-13 for the 1966 Twins), and Luis Tiant (21-9 for the 1968 Indians).
  • Since 1957, there have only been only 10 instances when hitters have had 21 hits in a span of 30 at bats, and six of those were by Astros first baseman Lance Berkman from May 2-13.
  • Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi homered off the Mets' Johan Santana on an 0-2 pitch Saturday, the first home run the left-hander had allowed on that count since September 27, 2005, when he was pitching for the Twins and the Royals' Matt Diaz took him deep.

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Three series to watch this week, with rankings based on Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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