By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
SURPRISE, Ariz. — While Cliff Lee gets a feel for his pitches at spring training, it seems he already has a good handle on his new team.
Lee pitched three innings Wednesday in his first exhibition start for the Seattle Mariners, allowing five hits and a run in their 6-3 victory over the Texas Rangers, and then said what Mariners fans — and the organization itself — has been dying to know.
“I like it here,” Lee said.
Nobody should take that as a promise for what Lee may do after this season when he can become a free agent. If any player knows that the business side of baseball can send him to any team at any time, even a former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher like Lee, it’s him.
The Indians traded him to the Phillies late last season and he became a key to Philadelphia’s run to the World Series. He wanted to stay in Philly and was shocked when they traded him to the Mariners in December.
Lee came to spring training making no promise other than to work hard and pitch his best for the Mariners, and any thoughts of a longer-term relationship would depend on how well he and the team want each other.
So far, so good.
“It didn’t take me long to realize there are good people here,” Lee said. “It’s a good organization. In free agency, you don’t get the luxury to spend some time with a team and the guys and see how you’re going to like it. Looking at it that way, I’ve got an opportunity to do that, where in free agency you don’t.”
No promises still, but in the three weeks since spring training began, Lee has a good sense of the camaraderie and will to win that extends from the Mariners’ clubhouse to the front office.
“It’s a bunch of good guys here and it’s not hard to fit in with this group,” he said. “There are a lot of good people, from the coaches to the trainers to the players, the management. They’ve done it right and it didn’t take long to see that. It’s a good environment.”
Lee said he hasn’t talked about a contract with the Mariners and would rather avoid it after the regular season begins.
“When the season starts, I want to focus on pitching and not worry about contractual talks and answering questions about it,” he said. “I want to focus on the opposing teams. That’s how I view it. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
All the Mariners are asking now is that Lee get himself ready to pitch behind Felix Hernandez at the top of the starting rotation. Wednesday was a big step, his first exhibition after being set back because of minor surgery to remove a bone spur from his left foot on Feb. 5.
He threw 46 pitches, 36 for strikes, and was generally pleased with his fastball control compared with the simulated game he pitched Friday, when he hit two minor league batters.
Lee was aided by double plays in the second and third innings after he’d put the leadoff runner on base each time.
“I want to locate fastballs. That’s the No. 1 thing for me right now,” Lee said. “I was pleased with where that was at, so I was able to use more of my pitches than anticipated.”
Lee said he’ll throw about 60 pitches in his next outing and continue to refine his stuff for the regular season — without concern over whether he’ll re-sign with the Mariners or not.
“I’ve been asked that question a few times, but I’m focused on preparing for the season,” he said. “If I sign here, great. If that doesn’t work out and I’m a free agent, that’s good too. It’s a win-win situation.
“I could be traded again. You never know what’s going to happen. That’s the nature of this business. All I can do is control what I can control, and that’s to make sure of my preparation and get ready for the season.”