NEW YORK — Cliff Lee went from the minor leagues to the pinnacle of pitching in one fantastic year. Now, he’s eager to repeat his award-winning performance.
Lee took the American League Cy Young Award in a runaway Thursday, capping a dominant comeback season that made him the second consecutive Cleveland Indians lefty to earn the coveted prize.
“It feels a lot better than it felt in ‘07,” Lee said on a conference call from his Arkansas home. “I want to win this Cy Young again. I want to make a habit of it.”
Demoted to the minors last year, Lee went a major league-best 22-3 this season with a 2.54 ERA. He received 24 of 28 first-place votes and 132 points in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Toronto ace Roy Halladay was a distant runner-up with four first-place votes and 71 points. Record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels finished third with 32 points.
Lee became the third Cleveland pitcher to win a Cy Young, following Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry in 1972 and CC Sabathia last year.
“We are pretty close friends, and there’s a lot of things I picked up from him and I’d like to think there’s a few things he picked up from me,” Lee said. “I’ve tried to help him out in situations and he’s tried to do the same for me. Apparently it’s worked. We’ve turned into pretty good pitchers.”
Trudging through a disappointing season and cognizant of budget constraints, the injury-depleted Indians traded Sabathia to Milwaukee on July 7. He is expected to fetch a huge contract this offseason after filing for free agency.
“I definitely miss him being around on the team. He’s someone that I leaned on,” Lee said. “I saw how he did it in ‘07 and I watched everything he did. I knew what it took because I’d seen it. It definitely was a benefit to watch it right in front of me.”
An 18-game winner in 2005, Lee was hurt in spring training last year and struggled so badly he was sent to the minors. He returned to the big leagues and finished 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA, then was left off Cleveland’s postseason roster.
“I was kind of pushed to the side,” Lee said. “That was tough.”
The Indians asked him to visit pitching coach Carl Willis in North Carolina last offseason, and Lee said their chat helped. Determined to re-establish himself, he won a spot in the rotation during spring training and was the league’s top pitcher from April on.
Lee had an amazing 0.67 ERA through his first seven outings and was 12-2 with a 2.31 ERA when he started for the AL in the July 15 All-Star game at Yankee Stadium.
“I knew pretty early that it was going to be a special year. I really did,” Lee said. “But I also knew that I had to keep my mind in the moment, keep doing my work, not cut any corners.”
Pitching for an inconsistent team that rallied late to finish 81-81, Lee was a mark of consistency. Confident in his off-speed stuff as well as his pinpoint fastball, he walked just 34 batters in 31 starts and suddenly went from No. 5 starter to ace.
“I made a conscious effort to work on throwing away from righties and using my curveball more, using my changeup more and actually pitching,” Lee said. “I was going to miss spots here and there, but for the most part I felt like I had command from the first start to the last start and I made guys earn their way on.”
The 30-year-old Lee led the AL in ERA and ranked second in innings (223 1-3) and complete games (four). Halladay, the 2003 winner, topped those two categories with 246 innings and nine complete games. The right-hander also was 20-11 with a 2.78 ERA, second in the league. He piled up 206 strikeouts to Lee’s 170.
Lee became the first Cleveland pitcher to win 20 games since Perry in 1974.
“My job is to come back in ‘09 and do it again. There’s no reason to think I can’t,” Lee said. “I honestly feel like I’m going to come back and pick up right where I left off.”