Ever-durable Lee is ready for another season

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Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

The penultimate pitch Cliff Lee threw in Arlington, Texas, was an 86-m.p.h. cutter that did not cut. It floated into Edgar Renteria's swing, and Lee slammed his left fist into his glove. He knew.

The ball landed just beyond the left-field wall for a three-run homer in Game 5 of the 2010 World Series. For the second consecutive season, Lee failed to secure a World Series ring.

That was a Monday four Novembers ago, the last time Lee threw in the ballpark where he will begin 2014, a season that promises professional and personal drama for the lefthander. He does not yet own the coveted jewelry. He wants to win it in Philadelphia, where he took less money than Texas and New York offered to play, although the man traded four times in his distinguished career may have to prepare for another move.

"I don't play the 'what if?' game," Lee, 35, said. "I'm happy with the decision I made, and I'm glad to be here, and this is where I wanted to be. The past couple of years haven't gone the way I wanted it or we wanted it. You have to stick with the decisions you made and try to make the best of it and do your job."

Lee's success is almost tedious; he is not a bombastic type and he does not throw hard. He led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio in each of the last two seasons. His ERA has not climbed above 3.22 since 2007.

He has never suffered an elbow or shoulder injury. At a time when pitchers across the game succumb to the unnatural act of throwing a baseball thousands of times, Lee has aged like few others in history.

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"It's about genetics," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "It's about anatomy. Partly, it is about taking care of himself. Obviously, he has all three of those. Hopefully, it continues a long time for him. He's remarkable in that regard."

Lee posted 30.6 wins above replacement at ages 30-34. That ranks 11th in baseball since the end of the Dead Ball Era in 1919. Those who were better: Bob Gibson, Lefty Grove, Gaylord Perry, Carl Hubbell, Kevin Brown, Roy Halladay, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, and Urban Shocker. Wins above replacement measures the number of wins a player added compared to what a replacement-level one would produce.

The Phillies owe Lee $62.5 million over the next two seasons (that includes a $12.5 million buyout for a vesting option in 2016). Lee holds a partial no-trade clause. He said at the end of last season he plans to retire when his current contract expires.

Halladay, who retired before his 37th birthday, provided a cautionary example for Lee. The two adopted different strategies in approaching their jobs. Halladay's work ethic was retold again and again as legend. He studied opposing lineups with detailed video and charts. Lee, who places a high emphasis on his winter exercises, is not as meticulous.

He has a theory for the rise in pitching injuries.

"I know I've developed a routine that works for me," Lee said. "Every case is different. But I think a lot of it has to do with how hard guys are working in the offseason, whether they strengthen their body enough to handle the stress we put on our bodies. I don't know if all of them are slacking a bit, but I'm willing to bet some of these guys, if they would have worked a little harder in the offseason, they would be able to decrease the chances of those things happening. That's not all of them. But I'm willing to bet there are a few.

"Sometimes guys have to go through an injury to realize that. And all of a sudden, you develop a routine that prevents that from happening and never look back. I've tried to do everything I can to hedge that up front and prevent anything from happening."

Lee found a middle ground - he learned it from a man named Tim Maxey, who was Cleveland's strength and conditioning coordinator in 2003 - and has not deviated since. He wondered about Halladay's history, how the ace "fired a lot of bullets" and often completed games. Halladay threw 37,043 pitches by the time he turned 35. Lee is at 31,802.

"Over time, it got to him," Lee said. "He might be a guy who worked too hard. He was definitely a hard worker. He made a heck of a career out of it. Sometimes I wondered if he was doing too much. He wasn't going to change because it worked for him for 15 years."

Lee's plan engendered tremendous personal success. (The most days he missed in a season was 61, in 2003, for an abdominal injury.) It is his quest for a championship that could force the Arkansas native to consider alternatives if the Phillies stumble - just as when he left the Rangers for Philadelphia.

Lee, if available come July, would be the hottest commodity on the trade market. That is because of his durability and the simplicity behind it all.

"I feel like I found a routine that works," Lee said. "I'll stick with it until the game or my body tells me I have to make an adjustment."

 


mgelb@phillynews.com

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