TONY DEJAK / AP Enlarge
CLEVELAND - Once inside the clubhouse, Cliff Lee's teammates popped open champagne and toasted his latest win, his biggest win.
Exactly one year after being brought back from the minor leagues, Lee had something major to celebrate: He's Cleveland's first 20-game winner in 34 years.
"Has a nice ring to it," Lee said. "I like the sound of that."
Lee, who was sent back to Triple-A last season to work on his mechanics and his mental approach, pitched a five-hitter for his second career shutout and led the Indians to a 5-0 win over the Chicago White Sox last night.
Lee (20-2) is the first Indian to reach 20 wins since Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry went 21-13 in 1974. The left-hander's milestone win was his ninth straight victory.
"I never lost confidence," Lee said. "I never got down on myself or questioned my abilities. I never once doubted what I could do."
With a chance to also join Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon as Cleveland's 20-game winners, Lee shut down the hard-hitting, Central-leading White Sox. He gave up two singles to open the first before retiring 21 straight and finishing his fourth complete game.
"That's the best I've seen him throw against us in some time," said Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen, whose club dropped into a tie for first in the Central with Minnesota. "He's a 20-game winner for a reason. We got to him early and had an opportunity. Then he shut us down, just dominated us."
After he got Carlos Quentin to ground into a game-ending double play, Lee punched his fist into his glove and hugged catcher Kelly Shoppach as fireworks boomed above Progressive Field. And as he has done 19 other times this season, Lee got in line to exchange handshakes with his teammates.
First baseman Ryan Garko flipped the ball to Lee, and he headed to the dugout as a video tribute from Perry and Feller was shown on the stadium scoreboard.
"It's nice to get this behind me and not have to answer questions about matching Gaylord Perry," Lee said in a typically stoic tone. "I'm glad I got it over with on the first try. It's a good feeling, especially not giving up any runs."
Lee's 20 wins put a resounding stamp on his turnaround season.
Ineffective for the first four months of 2007, Lee had been sent back to the minors last July, a startling downfall for a pitcher who had won 46 games over the previous three years. In his final start before the demotion, Lee was booed off the field and sarcastically tipped his cap at fans who were sick of seeing him.
Now, they can't get enough of Lee.
Since the first day of spring training in '08, he has been in a groove.
"It's a tremendous tribute to him and the work and the commitment he made," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "These things don't happen by accident."
He went 5-0 in April and was 12-2 when he took the mound as the AL's starter at the All-Star game in Yankee Stadium. He went 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA in August.
He leads the majors in wins and ERA, and no pitcher has meant more than the laid-back 30-year-old, who has accounted for 30 percent of Cleveland's 66 victories.
The Indians' three-decades-plus drought without a 20-game winner was the longest among nonexpansion teams. Tampa Bay, Colorado, and Florida have never had a pitcher get to 20 wins, and it's been 30 years since the Montreal/Washington franchise and San Diego had a 20-game winner.
Lee has refused to put emphasis on any start but his next one, and he has shrugged off his success with a hey-this-is-my job nonchalance. For weeks, he has downplayed any significance of reaching the 20-win barrier, insisting all he wants to do is give the Indians a chance to win.
Lee has been remarkably consistent, pitching at least five innings in all 27 starts. He has allowed two or fewer runs in 21 of them and hasn't walked a batter 10 times. He has been nearly as good on the road (11-2) as at home (9-0).
His approach has been simple.
"You've got to locate. You've got to work ahead. You've got to mix and change speeds," Lee said. "That's the key to pitching."
Orlando Cabrera and A.J. Pierzynski opened the first with singles. But Lee struck out Quentin and then got Jermaine Dye to hit a hard liner to second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who snagged the drive and stepped on the bag for the double play.
Lee gave up two singles in the ninth before he got Pierzynski to fly to left. Chicago's fiery catcher, who slammed his bat down after popping out in the fourth, then stared in Lee's direction. Lee stared back.
"He was chirping from the dugout," said Lee, who couldn't recall if he yelled anything back at Pierzynski. "He gave me a little extra energy. I appreciate that, him giving me a little extra edge."
Pierzynski denied yelling at Lee.
"I didn't say anything to him the whole game," he said. "I yelled something when I popped up. He pitched a great game and has had a heck of a season. Give the guy credit. Winning 20 games is pretty darn good."
As the Indians celebrated Lee's win, many of the White Sox remained in their dugout, perhaps upset by the left-hander's posture.
"I don't care," Lee said.
The Indians scored three earned runs off Chicago starter Clayton Richard (2-3).
NOTES: Ken Griffey Jr. was a late scratch from Chicago's lineup. Nick Swisher took his spot in center and in the No. 7 spot. ... DH Travis Hafner, sidelined since May with a shoulder injury, will not be called up from the minors today when the Indians expand their roster by seven. Hafner has been rehabbing at Triple-A Buffalo. 2B Josh Barfield is one of the players the Indians will bring up.41.50436 -81.69046