SEATTLE – Cliff Lee has been through a season’s worth of events for his new Seattle Mariners and he hasn’t even pitched in a game that counts yet.
The 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner has tried an unproven blood therapy for his strained abdomen. He’s had simulated games. He’s had bullpen sessions from Peoria, Ariz., to Arlington, Texas, to Kansas City, Mo., since getting hurt March 15. He’s been in Tacoma for a minor league rehabilitation outing.
He’s also been suspended for five games for throwing over the head of a hitter in an exhibition game. He’s had an appeal hearing canceled, eventually pleaded his case in a two-hour teleconference, then had the league drop the whole thing.
Finally, Lee gets his Mariners debut tonight at Safeco Field against Texas, his first start since Game 5 of the World Series on Nov. 2, when he beat the New York Yankees for the Philadelphia Phillies.
And Seattle finally gets to unwrap its prized winter acquisition in what has to be its most anticipated April 30 game in team history. The Mariners are expecting such a large crowd, they are opening the stadium gates early.
“I’m anxious. I can’t speed up the clock,” Lee said. “Friday, it’s just go out there and have fun. Let it all hang out.”
Almost all. He will be limited to about 100 pitches.
He threw 68 while allowing just three hits in six shutout innings against Triple-A batters last Sunday in Tacoma.
“First day coming off the DL, I hope we can get his pitch count up and get him out of there by the third inning, then we don’t have to worry about him,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “Hopefully, he’s excited and he tries to overthrow. It’s going to be a challenge. The guy can pitch.”
Lee is 5-3 in eight career starts against Texas, but his 7.09 ERA against the Rangers is his highest against an A.L. opponent.
The Mariners did what they hoped to do in this first month without their top left-hander: They survived. They are 11-11 despite an often sickly offense.
They are at .500 entering their second homestand of the season, mostly because their starters have a 2.62 ERA in the past 14 games.
Seattle believes that ERA will go lower with Lee, who is one of the primary reasons the Mariners expect to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001. They think they will begin asserting themselves now that Lee will pitch on consecutive days with co-ace Felix Hernandez. The runner-up in last year’s Cy Young voting is 2-1 with a 2.23 ERA so far this season.
“I want to contribute and do my part,” Lee said.
General manager Jack Zduriencik senses that when Erik Bedard makes his season debut, probably in late May, this rotation will be unparalleled in the A.L. West.
“It’s exciting to think about,” Zduriencik said, referring to his trio of aces finally pitching at the same time.
The 31-year-old Lee has a huge personal stake in getting into midseason form quickly. He can become one of baseball’s most sought-after free agents after this season.
His urgency led Lee back to Seattle in March to have platelet-rich plasma injection therapy. His blood was concentrated in a centrifuge then injected into the injured area to focus its healing powers on his ailing midsection.
The treatment has been used for the last decade on joint issues such as tennis elbow, or other injuries to limbs, but not on abdomens. That made Lee something of a medical experiment.
Lee is getting back in six weeks, no sooner than he got back from a strained abdomen in 2007 while with Cleveland. He missed two months with another strained abdomen in 2003, but he also had a sports hernia then.
“Obviously, I’d rather it not have taken place at all, but since it did, it went good,” Lee said of this injury and recovery. “It’s basically over now. I’ve got to get back and help the team.
“Only time will tell. I hope everything is behind me and (I don’t) have to worry about it anymore.”