Cliff Lee couldn’t help but hear the fan’s loud greeting. “Welcome back, Cliff Lee,” a Phillies follower bellowed just before the ace southpaw threw the first pitch of his spring training debut.
“Yeah, I heard him,” Lee said. “But they’ve been saying welcome back every day I walk outside. I’m not complaining. These fans are excited about me and that’s great.”
The Arkansas native and is Philadelphia’s most popular athlete. That’s hard to debate after he led the Phils to the 2009 World Series. Lee won two games in that Fall Classic and utterly dominated the Bronx Bombers in a Game 1 win.
The topper is that the offseason’s biggest free agent rejected a more generous offer from the Yankees to once again sport the Phillies’ red pinstripes.
“I came back here because I think this is the best team for me to be on,” Lee said. “I think we have a great chance to win a World Series and I love playing with these guys. I love being a Phillie and I love playing before these supportive crowds.”
Lee is aware that Philly fans don’t back every athlete that comes through town.
“I understand and appreciate that the Phillies fans are so into it,” Lee said. “If I continue to play this way, hopefully they will stay behind me. If I pitch well, they’ll continue to cheer. If I do the opposite, they’ll boo me.”
For now, Lee continues to get standing ovations whether he steps on the mound, walks into a restaurant or picks up his morning paper.
“There are worse ways to live,” Lee said.
Meet the Phab Four (+ Joe)
1 Roy Halladay, RHP
2011 projections: 24 wins, 2.12 ERA
» What he throws: Fastball (93 mph range), curveball, changeup and cutter with unparalleled control.
» Scouting report: Halladay will go after hitters, pound the plate and probably lead the league in complete games.
» “He’s the best pitcher in baseball,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.
» Halladay is perhaps the most intense hurler since Steve Carlton. He treats spring training like the playoffs, as evidenced by his 0.42 ERA in the Grapefruit League.
2 Cliff Lee, LHP
2011 projections: 19 wins, 2.37 ERA
» What he throws: Fastball (89-92 mph range), cutter, curveball, two- and four-seam fastball, slider and changeup.
» Scouting report: Not a power pitcher, but has exceptional control of all six pitches. Lee is a fast worker, pounds the plate and is capable of finishing games, just like Halladay.
» “Cliff Lee is a great pitcher,” Jayson Werth said. “He’s one of the best in the game. He’s the kind of guy you pay to see pitch. He’s that good.”
» Especially in the playoffs, where he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA.
3 Roy Oswalt, RHP
2011 projections: 13 wins, 3.33 ERA
» What he throws: Fastball (93 mph), slider, changeup, curveball.
» Scouting report: Yet another Phillies ace, who challenges hitters. His curve — a beautiful 12-6 hook that arrives at about 69 mph, is devastating after a heater.
» “You know what you get from Roy Oswalt every year,” Jimmy Rollins said. “He’s an elite starter.”
» Oswalt is the most consistent pitcher in the past decade — without a losing season in his career (since 2001).
4 Cole Hamels, LHP
2011 projections: 17 wins, 2.86 ERA
» What he throws: Devastating changeup, complemented by fastball that can hit 94 mph. Added nasty cutter last season.
» Scouting report: Sometimes Hamels mixes in occasional curve, which he has never fully trusted Hamels, 27, is the youngest of the four aces.
» “The thing that’s scary about Hamels is that he could become much better than he is right now,” Royals OF Jeff Francoeur said. “I played in the minors against him. He was tough then. He’s very good now. He’s a special pitcher.”
5 Joe Blanton, RHP
2011 projections: 12 wins, 4.25 ERA
» What he throws: Fastball (87-91 mph range), curveball, cutter, slider and changeup.
» Scouting report: Gets by with deception over power. Big question is: Can Blanton get out of the first without giving up runs? When healthy, he eats innings.
» “If Joe Blanton is your fifth starter, you have a really good rotation,” Yanks skipper Joe Girardi said. “And the Phillies do have a really good rotation. Blanton is tough. He’s a competitor.”