Lee sets the tone for Phillies

Posted: March 06, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The sun rose and set without a game on Tuesday as the Phillies waited out a perfect day for baseball in order to check off the one night game from their home spring training schedule.

Someone somewhere thought it was a good idea, and maybe it was, but the normal rhythms of the exhibition season - the morning workouts, the afternoon games, the early exits - provide a comforting framework for the job at hand.

"I've been up since about 4:30 this morning," manager Ryne Sandberg said before Cliff Lee finally started the game against the Toronto Blue Jays. "[Lee] is the right guy to have out there. He usually sets a good tone and pace for the game. With the quick turnaround tomorrow morning, maybe we can get to bed a little early."

Getting a fast spring training game can be a difficult task with all the comings and goings and substitutions, but Lee did what he could, speeding through his three innings of the Phillies' 5-3 loss to the Blue Jays.

"Physically, I feel good. It's just a matter of getting honed in and building up the strength to throw 100-plus pitches. Get the work in, get the pitch count up, and try to get to where I can throw every pitch where I want to. That's my goal. It's never going to be that way, but I want to get as close to that as I can," Lee said.

As a rookie manager for a team with a jumbled set of expectations, Sandberg gets much more here than just a quick few innings from Lee. Setting the pace for a spring training game is fine. Setting the tone in the clubhouse and on the field is what matters.

"He's always one of the leaders in his work group on the fundamentals, demonstrating to the other guys in line how to do the drill and how to execute and go about it the right way," Sandberg said. "He's been great."

If that sounds like ordinary praise, the bare minimum of professionalism, it isn't. Not every 35-year-old Cy Young Award winner, made man of the rotation, is going to police the line when the kids are going through the tedium of repeatedly covering first base.

"The more you are around, the more you should expect to do those kinds of things," Lee said. "The ultimate goal is to make the Phillies as good as possible. If I can help with anything that small, it's worth speaking up."

That's what the Phillies get from Lee, that along with 200 innings and the kind of production and stability in the rotation that only money can buy. That's how it works in baseball, and while the Phillies are hamstrung by some of their contracts, the $25 million they pay Lee this season has a good chance to be the best money spent.

"No. 1, he's one of the better pitchers in the game, and, No. 2, you like the way he works and the way he applies himself. Having a guy like that at the top of the rotation kind of sets the tone. That's big," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "With he and Cole [Hamels] and A.J. [Burnett], those guys are all important to us in terms of presence, how to go about things."

Lee, as Sandberg hoped, went about things quickly on Tuesday, needing just four minutes to dispatch the Blue Jays on 12 pitches in the top of the first inning. That might not have set the tone for the evening, but it set the tone for Lee, who relied on his fastball and cut fastball, and the occasional change-up and less occasional curveball to keep the Blue Jays off-balance.

"When he takes the mound, he knows what his strengths are, and he works to his strengths," Sandberg said. "Right now, he's trying to make some adjustments and realize his curveball is a good pitch and to work on that, and also mix in some change-ups."

Tuesday was Lee's second start. He gave up a run and three hits and has now allowed five hits and two runs in five innings and has struck out five as he gives lessons on how to work through the routine of another spring training.

"It doesn't get to me. I know what my job is. I know what I need to do to prepare," Lee said. "It's just a matter of doing it."

As much or more than his teammates, Lee doesn't really know what to expect from the season. If the Phillies stumble along again, signaling the real end of the championship legacy, it wouldn't be a shock to see the team try to move him before the trade deadline. He is owed $25 million for 2015 and has a $27.5 million vesting option for 2016 based on innings pitched that is reachable unless he suffers a significant decline.

Lee knows every bit of that, but it doesn't show. Each sunny day is just another invitation to work, and each drill and bullpen session becomes a classroom for the younger pitchers to observe. Hopefully, they are paying attention. If not, Cliff Lee will notice.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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