Jul 042010

By Frank Fitzpatrick

Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW YORK – Cliff Lee walked into the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium Thursday morning, stopped at the corner locker with his name and No. 36 above it, and craned his neck to see one of the four HDTVs hanging in the middle of the room.

At that instant, ESPN replayed the ill-fated, headfirst slide in Cincinnati that sent Phillies second baseman Chase Utley to the disabled list.

Ninety minutes later, after some breakfast and a bullpen throwing session, Lee admitted that he still keeps an eye on the Phillies.

“I text with [Jayson] Werth a little bit back and forth just to keep in touch,” Lee said, two days after registering another win against the New York Yankees, the team he beat twice for the Phillies during last year’s World Series. “I ask him how everybody is doing.”

Lee, pitching for the Seattle Mariners after the off-season trade that left him and an entire fan base disappointed, is well aware of how the Phillies are doing these days and he concedes he’s not sure if his presence could alleviate their problems.

“There is no way to know,” he said. “If I’m there, [Jimmy] Rollins probably still gets hurt. Utley is still hurt. It’s hard for that team to be successful without those two guys. [Placido] Polanco, too. They’ve dealt with a lot of injuries.

“No matter how deep or how good your lineup is from top to bottom, if you’re missing some key guys it’s going to hurt you. And [J.A.] Happ getting hurt, that’s a big deal as well. He’s a really good pitcher and he’s going to be good for a long time. They’ve taken some big hits.”

Some would argue that none of the injuries the Phillies have endured this season could match the hit the team took when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded Lee to the Mariners in exchange for three minor-leaguers who so far haven’t done anything to soothe the loss of the veteran lefthander.

The Phillies’ decision to replace Lee with Roy Halladay instead of acquiring Halladay and keeping Lee for one season has been a hot topic since the December day the move was made. Time has done little to cool the debate.

In fact, it’s probably about to heat up again because the calendar has turned to July, which means the trade deadline is rapidly approaching. The Mariners’ plan was to acquire Lee and, with the help of their new staff ace, contend for the American League West title.

Lee, with a 7-3 record and 2.45 ERA going into his start Sunday against Detroit, has done his part to help the Mariners, but too many other players on the Seattle roster have been a disappointment. With Seattle in last place, 14 games behind first-place Texas, and with Lee eligible for free agency after the season, the Mariners are expected to ship their staff ace elsewhere before July 31.

He said he’d be more than willing to return to Philadelphia, but he knows he’s about as likely to dress in the Phillies’ clubhouse this season as Ben Franklin, another man who created electricity in the city. It’s also clear that Lee is still a little hurt that the Phillies traded him in the off-season. He said that trade made him realize how cold and hard the business of baseball can be.

“It’s kind of strange,” he said. “You feel like you get to a place and everything goes well and . . . the next thing you know you’re out of there. That’s just a business move. It’s out of my control, and there is nothing I can do about it.”

Lee said he’d even be happy staying in Seattle for the remainder of the season.

“I’m a Mariner now and until I’m told to play somewhere else,” he said. “If I tell you I want to play for a contender, it sounds like I don’t want to play here, and I don’t want to give that message, because I’m definitely enjoying my teammates, my coaches, and this staff. It’s a good group of guys, and I think we can figure it out. All that stuff is out of my control. I’m about trying to help this team win now.”

Without a no-trade clause, Lee said he would accept whatever fate awaits him in the next month.

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