Cliff Lee ready for first start with Mariners
His first season with the Mariners was delayed by injury, but Cliff Lee will make his first start for Seattle on Friday, facing Texas at Safeco Field.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Texas Rangers @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., FSN
The last time Cliff Lee threw a major-league pitch that counted, he was winning his second World Series game to keep alive a team he envisioned signing an eight- or nine-figure contract extension with.
Nowadays, he's still a seven-figure pitcher, but on a new team in a different league and living at the opposite end of the country from where he thought he'd be. Since being traded to the Mariners by the Philadelphia Phillies, he has undergone foot surgery, recovered from an abdominal strain, been suspended five games, then had that ruling overturned, all without throwing another meaningful pitch.
But if there's one thing Lee knows how to do, it's put the past behind him. Part of that stems from not-so-long-ago failures with the Cleveland Indians in 2007, when he was a rumored candidate to be non-tendered that offseason right before winning a Cy Young Award and catapulting himself into the ranks of the game's elite.
"You never have this game completely figured out," Lee said this week as he prepared for his season debut Friday night against the Texas Rangers. "As soon as you think you've got it figured out, it's about to backfire right in your face."
So Lee takes the mound at Safeco Field trying not to worry about how he already trails several Cy Young contenders by weeks' worth of key stats. Or fret about how much his lost April might cost him in free agency this winter. Nor is he putting added pressure on himself to immediately meet the expectations of hungry Mariners fans who had expected to already be reaping a month's worth of a 1-2 Felix Hernandez-Lee punch in the rotation.
The lesson he learned from that Cleveland experience is to roll with the punches. And Lee has taken his share.
"You've got to continue to make adjustments," he said. "And not get too high when things are going good and not get too low when things are going bad. You hear that stuff all the time and it's kind of cliché-ish. But it's true."
Lee made those adjustments in Cleveland throughout a trying 2007 season. Instead of moping about the abdominal injury that cost him early playing time, or his ensuing struggles, he increased his focus on the tendencies of hitters, figuring out why they'd bettered him and improving himself for their next encounter.
He didn't dwell on failure, but instead kept his eye on making the future better.
It's the same mantra his current Mariners team lives by. Whether it's the even-keel approach of manager Don Wakamatsu in riding out an opening-week storm and slumps of several hitters, or a rotation that has picked up the slack in Lee's absence, the Mariners have rolled with the punches, too.
And now at .500 and within a game of the division lead, general manager Jack Zduriencik finally gets to see his offseason blueprint take shape.
"It's what we'd hoped to see," Zduriencik said. "I saw some media publication the other day and the cover of it had these two guys (Hernandez and Lee) on it back-to-back. And that's what you hope for. Because then it should help everybody else in the rotation. Anytime you take the experience of a veteran pitcher who's had a great deal of success and add him to your club, it's a boost. And we're looking forward to seeing it."
The Mariners overcame a 2-6 start and shaky debut performances by starters to reach their 11-11 mark. They sit second behind only Tampa Bay in American League earned-run average at 3.37, and hope for a further boost by the end of May with Erik Bedard's possible return.
Still, the Mariners do have lingering issues. They began their recent trip with four consecutive losses and only avoided a fifth with an eighth-inning rally off an awful Kansas City bullpen. They also blew a 5-1 lead in the trip's finale and needed another eighth-inning score against that Royals relief corps to prevail.
Several key hitters have underperformed, leaving the team unable to average even four runs per game. But Zduriencik sees a team that, so far, has managed to avoid serious setbacks in Lee's absence.
"I think everybody's been professional and everybody's handled their job the way they're supposed to," Zduriencik said. "They realize that over the course of a year, you're going to have these issues. There are going to be times when other guys go down. We went into the Chicago series (last week) and we didn't have Milton (Bradley) for any of the games. And we only had Jack (Wilson) for a third of one game. So other guys got an opportunity to go in and play, and this is what you're going to go through throughout the year."
Zduriencik and Wakamatsu both heaped praise on the lesser-heralded starters in the rotation for their work while Lee recovered. Doug Fister has a 1.67 ERA, and Jason Vargas is at 3.60 for the season — but down to 2.41 in games since a rough debut at Texas.
Lee said his new team has done OK surviving its rough start. But as a guy who has pitched on two playoff teams in the past three seasons, in Cleveland and Philadelphia, he thinks there's room to improve.
"I mean, we've got to do a better job of minimizing the streaks of losing," he said. "Obviously, you cut into those and it's going to make you that much better. But we definitely did a good job of riding that winning streak (last week). Which is good to see, but I think we need to somehow figure out a way to scrap out those close ones. Minimize the damage and win a series."
Having two staff aces can help bust losing streaks in a hurry. The Mariners did win a couple of close games and the series in Kansas City after Lee had spoken, and without the help of ace Hernandez. Now, Lee will try to help them firsthand.
Lee is renting a house in the Seattle area for now. His wife, Kristen; son Jason, who turned 9 on Thursday; and daughter Maci, 7, won't come over until the school year ends. That means for the next two months, Lee will be on his own in making a new home here for his family, both on the mound and off it, for however long it lasts.
He said he's eager, though definitely not nervous, to get started.
"The hardest part has been watching other guys, other pitchers around the game, go out and do the same things you're used to doing," he said. "Only you can't do it. Now I'll get my chance."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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