Phillies' Cliff Lee takes simple approach to pitching

Phillies starter Cliff Lee went 82/3 innings, striking out six, walking none and scattering eight hits. He has a 1.08 ERA after two starts.
Phillies starter Cliff Lee went 82/3 innings, striking out six, walking none and scattering eight hits. He has a 1.08 ERA after two starts. (                  YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 11, 2013

It's funny how these things go.

Erik Kratz has been a pretty good catcher when Cliff Lee is on the mound.

And that brutal weather in Atlanta? It may as well have been sunny and 70 as Lee pitched eight shutout innings against the mighty Braves lineup.

The mounds aren't slightly off. The mud on the baseballs is not rubbed in wrong. A defensive miscue behind him doesn't blow his concentration for the next four batters. The plate umpire doesn't lodge inside his head.

Lee just pitches. He's 2-0 after pitching 8 2/3 fine innings against the New York Mets on Tuesday night.

"Just throwing strikes," Lee said. "Making them swing their way on base. Just staying aggressive."

There is no absolutely right way to approach throwing a baseball. Roy Halladay has had an even more stellar career, by most measurements, than Lee's. Cole Hamels has a World Series MVP trophy and a ring, items Lee and Halladay would love to possess.

Halladay found success by trying to master every aspect of his craft. So if there is something he didn't prepare for - slick baseballs, a catcher's errant target - it can take him out of his zone. Long before this recent crisis, Halladay had a tendency to note anything about a game that irritated or affected him.

Even the most refined gourmet finds himself in a diner sometimes. If your meal is ruined by the lack of a wine list, that's your problem. Lee would find something on the menu he liked and dig in.

After his second poor outing of the season on Sunday, Hamels offered explanations about trying to locate his fastball and getting it too low. He has come a long way from his Cole Hamlet period, where every defensive lapse or windblown home run would cause him to curse the slings and arrows of outrageous baseball fortune. But it was still clear that he was as lost in his head, at least at that moment, as Halladay appears to be.

Halladay and Hamels had given the Phillies a total of four disastrous outings in the team's first seven games. Not surprisingly, the Phils' record was 2-5.

"We haven't pitched," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "That's supposed to be our strength.

"If we don't pitch, we don't win. So far, our No. 1 and our No. 2 have been not very good. They will be. They'll be better.

"When they're better, we'll be better. If they're not, then we won't be. That's fact. If our No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers can't pitch - I don't think that's going to happen, but if they don't - then we won't have success."

Setting aside the argument that Lee is at least the No. 2 starter, and arguably the ace, Amaro's analysis was dead on. The Phillies have too much money and too much faith invested in Halladay and Hamels to do much except wait for them to come around.

Hamels is the safer bet, because he's younger and is not coming off the still-murky injury situation that ruined Halladay's 2012 season. But Halladay is still a guy whose upside, if he can find it, is better than the Phillies can reasonable expect to find in any of the alternatives.

"Doc gets as long as he needs," Amaro said.

That is the only approach for now. Show confidence, hope it rubs off, and adjust if necessary.

In the meantime, Lee's work-fast, throw-strikes, think-less approach is a tonic. Not just for him or for his beleaguered battery mate, Kratz. The entire lineup played with energy and a looseness that has been scarce in the early going.

"Cliff's awesome," third baseman Michael Young said. "I love to play behind Cliff. He's basically a baseball player who pitches."

Lee himself chipped in an RBI single and scored in a four-run second-inning rally against Mets righthander Dillon Gee. Instead of stalling at 4-0 - as the team did in two come-from-ahead losses on this homestand - the Phillies blasted three solo home runs in the third. Ryan Howard's first of the season was among them.

Hamels will find his groove. Halladay will find his new normal. They will stop thinking so much and start pitching.

Lee will be there, wondering what took so long.

Contact Phil Sheridan at Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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