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Lee leads a lineup of former Bisons

Buffalo should hold a special place in Cliff Lee's heart.

It's here, after all, that his transformation into one of baseball's best pitchers began.

Lee was struggling mightily in 2007 with the Cleveland Indians, so much so that he was sent to the Bisons for eight starts. He pitched 41 innings with the Herd, going 1-3 with a 3.51 ERA. More importantly, he found the answer to whatever was ailing him along Washington Street.

When the 2008 season started, Lee was questionable to make the Tribe's rotation. By the end, he won the American League Cy Young.

The momentum hasn't stopped. Now with the Seattle Mariners, he lowered his AL-best ERA to 2.39 in his last start Wednesday. He took 19 batters to an 0-2 count in that start and struck out nine. And how's this for a stat: Lee's got as many complete games this season (four) as walks allowed.

Lee leads the list of former Bisons who are making a fantasy impact in the big leagues. Here's how I would fill out the rest of my lineup card:

* Catcher: Victor Martinez, Boston: Lee's old batterymate in Cleveland is an elite player at a weak position for the Red Sox. He's been great in June -- batting .378 -- which has raised his season average to .295. He's got nine home runs and 38 RBIs. The only downside for Martinez owners is he's only played twice this season at first base, which means he's likely not eligible there like he was last season. Martinez played in 73 games with the Bisons in 2003, hitting .326 with 45 RBIs.

* First base: Russell Branyan, Cleveland: Branyan has bounced around the big leagues and began this season on the disabled list. He's been solid recently, hitting .288 in June. Branyan is notoriously streaky, but has a solid power stroke (10 home runs this season, 31 last year with Seattle). He hit 51 homers over 1999 and 2000 with the Bisons, then added another 25 in 2004.

* Second base: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati: Another elite option at a weaker position, Phillips is hitting .308 in 73 games for the Reds. He has nine homers, 24 RBIs and 56 runs scored. He spent all or part of four seasons with the Herd, the best of which came in 2004 when he played in 135 games with a .304 average, 158 hits, 83 runs, 50 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.

* Shortstop: Marco Scutaro, Boston: Hasn't quite lived up to his 2009 season with Toronto, but is heating up lately for the Red Sox with 14 RBIs in June after just 10 in the first two months of the year. He's scored 46 runs. Scutaro spent two full seasons in Buffalo (1999-2000), scoring 76 runs in 129 games in '99.

* Third base: Kevin Kouzmanoff, Oakland: Kouz was batting .244 entering June, but has got that average up to .292. He's got eight home runs and 39 RBIs and his recent hot streak is forcing him into mixed lineups. Kouzmanoff didn't spend a ton of time in Buffalo, playing just 27 games in 2006. He raked while he was here, though, with seven homers and 20 RBIs.

* Outfield: Ryan Ludwick, St. Louis: Ludwick's got a nice season going with a .273 average, 11 home runs, 42 RBIs and 40 runs. He's been out recently with a cramp in his leg, but the injury is not serious. Ludwick played 98 games with the Herd in 2004-05. He struggled in the second season, batting just .192 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 188 at-bats (54 games). He found his power stroke in 2006 with Triple-A Toledo, belting 28 home runs and driving in 80 runs in 134 games.

* Outfield: Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland: Choo's been solid all season, including a current six-game hitting streak capped Wednesday with a two-homer game against Philadelphia. Choo can be used in all mixed leagues with his .286 average, 10 home runs, 79 hits and 37 RBIs. Choo batted .260 with the Herd in 2007 in 59 games.

* Outfield: Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle: After batting .326 in April, Gutierrez has slipped to .235 the last two months and has struck out 48 times. He wouldn't be on this list if the Indians' Grady Sizemore could stay healthy. Gutierrez was with the Herd from 2004 to '07. His best season was in 2006, when he hit .278 in 349 at-bats.

e-mail: jskurski@buffnews.com

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