Lee is healthy in body and in mind

Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Don't look back. It's how Cliff Lee trapped Torii Hunter off second base yesterday, and it's how he avoids feeling trapped pitching for a team given little chance to compete for a championship this season.

"I don't play the what-if game," he said after his latest, and final, strong spring training start yesterday. "I'm happy with my decision, and I'm glad to be here. This is where I want to be."

Not in New York, where the Yankees have battled their own issues of age and injury over the last couple of years. Not in Texas, Lee's temporary home during the Rangers' 2010 run to the World Series, and the site of his first-ever Opening Day start on Monday.

These were the teams Lee spurned following that 2010 season, turning down offers of more guaranteed years and upfront money from each so he could return to the Phillies, join three other aces, and finally win that elusive World Series.

Well . . .

That 2011 staff led a Phillies team that won 102 regular-season games and was arguably the strongest edition of its 5-year run atop the National League East Division. But injuries have since piled up, beginning with Ryan Howard's gruesome Achilles' injury running out the last out of the 2011 National League Division Series. And dubious moves, including the trade of two All-Star-caliber outfielders and the signings of a slew of ragged-armed relievers further sapped a team that had seemed, to Lee at least, a playoff constant.

Meanwhile, the Rangers returned to the World Series in 2011 and were a wild-card team in 2012. Before age took a toll on them, as well, the Yankees appeared in the postseason in 2011 and 2012.

"The past couple of years haven't gone the way I want it or we want it," Lee said. "But you've got to stick with the decisions you've made, try to make the best of it, and do your job."

Lee has done his job this spring. He finished it with a 2.55 earned run average over 24 2/3 innings, striking out 26 while walking only four. Yesterday, he struck out seven and allowed one run over five innings against a lineup filled with the stars of last year's American League champions, and if the Phillies had dunked 40-year-old Bobby Abreu in WD-40 before trying him out in rightfield yesterday, he might have held the Tigers scoreless.

"He's been outstanding," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He's just on a roll. He's also come a long way with holding baserunners. And that now is something he's got in his pocket."

Truth is, Lee is in Ryno's pocket in that regard. A veteran known for telltale facial expressions and "Whatevers," he has embraced the philosophical changes preached by the new regime all spring, which makes the wholesale sell that much easier. Lee is not a vocal clubhouse leader, but everywhere he's been, everyday players hand him the same compliment his current manager issued after yesterday's game.

"He knows how to pitch," Sandberg said. "And he's actually a baseball player on top of it. To operate a wraparound move right there and get a runner who's trying to steal third - he's aware. He sets the tone. He's the Opening Day starter and the ace for a reason."

Oh yeah, the "wraparound move." After surrendering a double to Hunter in the fourth inning, Lee - who is trying to pitch at a slower pace with runners on base this season - caught his fellow Arkansan breaking toward third and ran right at him with the ball. The two men, who became friends during a charity event this winter, simultaneously began laughing, heightened when Hunter did a jiggle move on Lee as he got within a few feet. Lee's throw to third barely beat Hunter.

It was great theater and it was great fun, and if you've seen either play over the years, you believe it when Lee said afterward, "I'd probably do the same thing during the season."

"He's still got some athleticism, there's no doubt about it," Lee said of Hunter. "Thought I was about to tag him and the next thing I know, he's gone."

Hunter will turn 39 this summer. Despite his early-career reputation for running into and leaping over walls, he has been a model of health since turning 30, appearing in at least 140 games in all but one season. You could almost hear Ruben Amaro Jr. say, "see" when he double-juked Lee yesterday.

That's the bet, and right now Lee has tossed in his ante.

"Our everyday guys are all healthy," he said. "I think it's been a big reason why we've had some failures the last couple of years, so for them to be healthy is good. We've got a lot of guys who have done some special things and them being on the field is going to give them the best chance to do that."

Lee pitched against that 2009 Yankees team that began its season with the same aura of too old. And while he concedes that pitching against Texas will have extra meaning on Opening Day, the reality is there are more players left from that Phillies team than are left from the Texas team he helped reach the 2010 World Series against San Francisco.

"For us, we have all the confidence in the world and we expect to win the division and get to the World Series and win that ultimately," he said. "That's what we're expecting to do. What people think or what people expect, they might be right or they might be wrong. Nobody really knows yet. So we'll go play the games and see where it leads us."


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