CLEVELAND -- On a hot day several years ago, Cliff Lee knew he could make it to the major leagues. It was his first spring training with the Montreal Expos, and as Lee watched Carl Pavano throw a bullpen session, his always rock-solid confidence began to soar.
"I'm sitting there watching him, and I'm thinking: This is a major league pitcher, I know I can do this," said Lee, who had admired Pavano from afar. "Not to downgrade him, but once I saw him live and in person doing what he was doing, I knew that I could do it."
Competition and confidence were attributes Lee always remembers possessing. Whether it was against his many cousins and older brother, or friends at school, Lee's focus was unmatched when it came to pingpong, darts, tag or baseball. Growing up in Benton, Ark., Lee was raised by working-class parents, and his days were happily spent outside. Not only was Lee determined to win, he always held the belief that he would, and he usually did.
"You see a lot of guys that have unbelievable stuff, but they're missing the edge, the confidence to put it all together to be successful," Lee said. "If you're not confident and you're a little bit timid out there, that's when you're going to be exposed."
His core as a person has remained unchanged, and just in the past year he's gone from the graveyard of pitching -- he was 5-8 and left off the Indians' postseason roster -- to a 17-2 record that puts him as the leading contender for the American League Cy Young Award.
"I'd have to say the down you get from failing is way worse than the up you get from being successful," Lee says. "It's something you've got to be able to get past and learn from. You see people make excuses and you just don't want to be that guy."
Lee never has, and so he'll face the Royals on Thursday afternoon looking to match the career-high 18 wins he posted in 2005. His teammates feed off his intensity, displaying the same kind of nonstop energy and focus Lee brings to the mound.
"His intensity gets you fired up to play behind him," backup infielder Jamey Carroll said. "Every time you look at him, you get that feel from him that you can be just as intense or as focused.
"You don't see any doubt."
For the Indians, Lee's continued path to excellence is one of the bright spots for a team that has traded many of its players, most notably CC Sabathia, in order to look ahead. Lee is perhaps one of the few holdovers from the recent era. His teammates don't apologize for being alert and perhaps playing with more energy on days he pitches. The clubhouse is aware it could have back-to-back Cy Young winners (Sabathia won it last year).
"We'd like to get him as many wins as possible," left fielder David Dellucci said.
In fact, Indians public relations executive Bart Swain issued his first fact sheet this season right before Lee's most recent start (it was entitled "Brilliant Lee"). He did the same for Sabathia last year. Swain updated this one right after Lee threw a complete game against the Angels on Friday. Among the highlights included:
• An AL-best 17 wins and 2.43 ERA
• The first Indians left-handed pitcher to start an All-Star Game
• 10 times Lee has worked at least eight innings
• .651 career winning percentage
• 1.30 walks allowed per nine innings pitched (an AL-best)
• 5.58 strikeout-walk ratio (best in the AL)
Those numbers make it seem almost unfathomable when, just a year ago, Lee suffered through that 5-8 season. That record, coupled with a 6.29 ERA, had him stuck in baseball purgatory. On the day the club brought in Kenny Lofton for the stretch pennant push, Lee was told by manager Eric Wedge that he was going down to Triple-A. At first it was shock, then -- before Lee even left Wedge's office -- it morphed into determination.
"He was a pro," Wedge says. "He told me he was going to go down there and get it straight. I think he needed to have a little team meeting with himself."
Lee did, but it didn't go as planned. He still has no real explanation for what happened, why he fell off in such a dramatically disappointing way. He went 1-3 with a 3.51 ERA while with the Buffalo Bisons. He was recalled, but left off the postseason roster, which was a huge disappointment. It wasn't the demotion that stung -- Lee says he understands why he was sent down. He was confused by the lack of direction by the Indians because he was left off the postseason roster and didn't know what his future would be with the team. That uncertainty only drove him to work the hardest he ever has.
He attacked the offseason with vigor, in particular concentrating on his abdominal exercises since an ab strain in spring training last year in part derailed his success. He heard his name attached to numerous trades, and he knew he had to fight for a spot in the rotation heading into spring training. He won the No. 5 starter's role in the last week of spring by doing what everyone says is the key to his success this season: pounding the strike zone and never taking a pitch off.
His personality is equally intense. He's considered straight-forward, focused and fierce. He's alternately described by Dellucci as "your typical lefty; they're just different."
Carroll says Lee is more active and social on the days he pitches; you can always tell the days on which Lee pitches because he talks up teammates. On Friday, before his most recent start against L.A., Lee's interest was not his approach against the Angles -- baseball's best team -- but how Bigfoot was recently thought to have been discovered in Georgia.
"He'll say something, and you're like, 'Where did that come from?'" Dellucci said. "And he'll be completely serious. I don't know how else to describe it other than he's your typical lefty. And I'm a left-handed batter, but pitchers are different."
I'd have to say the down you get from failing is way worse than the up you get from being successful. It's something you've got to be able to get past and learn from. You see people make excuses and you just don't want to be that guy.
-- Cliff Lee
Lee doesn't have a dominant signature pitch, though Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick said Lee's cutter as above-average.
"He gets ahead," Kendrick said. "He throws strikes and forces you to swing early. That cutter keeps you off balance."
So dominant was Lee to begin the season that in his first five starts his opponents' .163 on-base percentage was the lowest to start a season since 1909.
"I think it starts completely with his mentality," reliever Jensen Lewis said. "I think he went into the offseason and said, 'I'm going to do everything in my power to have success and I'm not going to worry.'
"He's taken all the thought out of it. It's almost like a video game: You press a button and it goes."
That doesn't mean Lee is emotionless. In fact, his strength has never been tested more than when his son, Jaxson, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 4 months old. Lee was at the end of his Class A season when doctors told him and his wife, Kristen, that Jaxson had a 30 percent chance of surviving.
Jaxson endured radiation, chemotherapy and a blood transplant, and today, at 7 years old, is in complete remission.
"I'm blessed that he's alive," Lee says. "Life is never easy. It's way more important than struggling in baseball."
Lee says he never would have gone to college were it not for baseball; his parents couldn't have afforded it and he'd probably be working construction. He says his parents raised him to be accountable for his actions. A constant class clown who was consistently punished with detention, Lee realized that if he wanted to play in the major leagues -- his dream since he was 10 years old -- he needed to stop getting into trouble.
So he did.
It was in high school, then junior college when he would at first be intimidated by the level of competition. But all he needed was that test, to see what all the other pitchers threw, and he knew he'd fit in. It was necessary for Lee to be tested at each stage of his career in order to convince himself he could play.
And on that spring day, seven years ago, Carl Pavano was the final test Lee passed.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.