© 2009 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
04/01/09 8:50 PM ET
Lee eager to put Arizona behind him
Indians' Opening Day starter wants to forget rough spring
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When the Indians' buses pull up to Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix on Thursday afternoon, Cliff Lee might be the first one off the bus and on the chartered flight to Texas.
That's not because Lee, who flew in an F-16 fighter jet last month, is itching to get up in the sky again. He's merely ready to get out of the mysterious air of Arizona, where no one knows what is real and what is bogus, and into some games that count.
Because if these Cactus League games counted, the reigning Cy Young Award winner and his inflated ERA would be under some serious scrutiny.
"I'm definitely ready for the season to start," Lee said Wednesday, after another ugly outing against the Mariners at Peoria Stadium. "It's been a strange spring for me."
Considering the remarkable results that became routine for Lee in 2008, the numbers next to his name on the spring stat line do indeed look strange. On Wednesday, he was victimized by Seattle for seven runs on nine hits, including three home runs, over five innings. That raised Lee's ERA to 12.46. He'll leave here having surrendered 33 runs on 46 hits in just 21 2/3 innings. The opposition hit .407 off him.
The good news is he's only walked two batters.
"I'm throwing the ball where I want to," Lee said. "For the most part, I'm ahead in the count. The results weren't there, and that's basically it."
Predictably, Lee and the Indians are showing no concern over what's transpired this spring. They have every bit of confidence that when Lee takes the mound in Monday's season opener at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, he will once again be the steadying presence he was throughout 2008.
When it comes to expectations, any pressure on Lee to once again go 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA won't come from the Indians. They want him to be the ace of an otherwise questionable starting rotation, but they are not asking for anything statistically historic.
"The [outside] expectations are greater," manager Eric Wedge said. "It'll be a matter of him having the discipline to try to focus on what he can control and not get caught up with everything going on outside the lines."
For now, any scrutiny of Lee's performance from outside the lines is rather harmless stuff. Even on a day in which Adrian Beltre, Mike Wilson and Rob Johnson all took Lee deep, Wedge saw positives.
"I thought the ball came out of Cliff's hand pretty good," Wedge said. "He had a real good breaking ball. His changeup was a little firm at times, but he had good fastball command. It was one of those hitters' days."
That was difficult to dispute, given the 14-14 final score and the windy conditions. And the dry air of Arizona is a well-publicized calamity for pitchers.
"I know the ball does travel more and the air is thinner," Lee said, "so, theoretically, the ball shouldn't break as much."
But as Lee himself admitted "that sounds like an excuse," and he doesn't wish to sound as though he's making excuses.
"I still have to make my pitches and show improvement," Lee said.
Where pitching coach Carl Willis sees improvement from Lee is his pitch selection from outing to outing. Lee stuck strictly to fastballs in his first three outings before going with a more regular-season-ready selection in a strong start against the Rockies on March 22. But these past two starts have seen him feeding the opposition a steady diet of changeups and breaking balls, and the results have not been encouraging.
Willis, though, pointed out that Lee is not pitching with the benefit of a scouting report of the opposition.
"That forces him to read swings and look for tendencies," Willis said. "It's a little more challenging."
More important challenges lie ahead for Lee, beginning with the first Opening Day start of his career.
"That's where you want to be as a starting pitcher," Lee said. "You want to be the guy who gets the ball that first day. But I'm not putting any extra pressure or expectations on myself. It really just boils down to giving the team a chance to win."
Lee didn't give his team that chance in a spring season that saw him go 0-3 in six starts. But one thing he hasn't lost is his confidence.
"I still expect to be successful," he said. "That's not going to change. Whether good things happen or bad things happen, you've still got to be confident to be successful. I'm going to go out there expecting to put up zeroes, go deep into the game and give the team a chance to win. That's what I expect every time."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.