Lee falters as Cleveland drops season opener

ARLINGTON, Texas – The Texas Rangers can still hit. Cliff Lee can attest to that.

The AL Cy Young Award winner allowed seven runs and 10 hits in five innings, including Hank Blalock’s three-run homer, and the Rangers routed the Cleveland Indians 9-1 yesterday in their season opener.

Kevin Millwood allowed one run over seven innings in his fourth consecutive opening-day start for Texas. The 34-year-old right-hander lost his first three.

Lee was 22-3 with an AL-leading 2.54 ERA last season, when the left-hander never gave up more than six runs in a game – one of those starts was in a victory at the Rangers.

Texas had 15 hits against four pitchers, including Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s solo homer in the eighth. It matched the most hits for the Rangers in a season opener.

Texas jumped ahead with four runs in the second off Lee, who allowed only four earned runs in his first seven starts a year ago.

Blalock hit a one-hopper that ricocheted off Lee’s arm in the second. Cleveland manager Eric Wedge and a trainer went out to check on Lee, who threw one warmup pitch and said he was OK. Marlon Byrd then doubled and the Rangers scored all their runs that inning with two outs.

Saltalamacchia had his run-scoring hit before Elvis Andrus, the 20-year-old shortstop who had never before played above Double-A, doubled in his first at-bat.

Ian Kinsler, who finished with three hits, followed with a two-run double to make it 4-0.

Blalock, primarily the designated hitter after being the opening-day third baseman the past seven seasons, hit a high flyball in the fifth that kept carrying in the wind and dropped into the right-field seats.

Millwood will guarantee his $12 million contract for 2010 if he pitches at least 180 innings this season. If he stays healthy – he was on the disabled list four times the past two seasons with nagging injuries – and keeps pitching like this, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Cleveland’s only run against him came with two outs in the seventh when Travis Hafner scored on a wild pitch. Millwood allowed five hits and struck out five while throwing 72 of 113 pitches for strikes.

Lee, whose ascension to the top of the Indians rotation was cleared by the trade of CC Sabathia to Milwaukee last summer, also struggled throughout spring training. Lee was 0-3 with a 12.46 ERA in six starts, including a game against Texas when he allowed 10 runs – nine earned – in 2 2-3 innings.

Texas led the majors with a .283 batting average and 901 runs last year. It was the fourth time the team scored at least 900 runs – the other three times the Rangers made their only playoff appearances. But they had a losing record because of a major league-worst 5.37 ERA and the game’s most overworked bullpen (572 2-3 innings).

Team president Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher known for his work ethic, emphasized tougher workouts for every pitcher, stressing the starters go longer into games. The Rangers hired Mike Maddux as their new pitching coach.

Everything went according to plan.

After Millwood, left-hander C.J. Wilson pitched a perfect eighth and Frank Francisco a 1-2-3 ninth. Wilson was the closer before missing the final six weeks of last season because of elbow surgery, and Francisco then didn’t allow an earned run in his final 11 appearances.

Millwood is the first Rangers pitcher to start four straight openers. Ryan and Charlie Hough both started three in a row.