CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg signaled the start of the homestretch of spring training Monday when he announced that Cliff Lee would be the team’s opening day starter March 31 in Texas against the Rangers.
“Easy call,” Sandberg said. “Obvious reasons. He was an all-star last year. The way he’s pitched this spring. Easy call.”
Lee will oppose Texas’ right-hander Yu Darvish. It will be the second opening day start of Lee’s career.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Lee said. “I look forward to it. It’s coming on us pretty quick. It’s two weeks away so I’m ready to go.”
Sandberg said A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick would start the second and third games of the season in Texas. Roberto Hernandez is likely to start the fourth game against the Cubs in Chicago, but nothing is official.
With Cole Hamels out possibly until May, the Phillies are unsure who will fill the fifth spot in the rotation. David Buchanan, Jeff Manship, Sean O’Sullivan and Mario Hollands are the candidates. The Phils won’t need a fifth starter until April 14. They could go with a four-man rotation until then.
Lee’s only previous opening day start came in 2009 with the Indians. It was also at Texas and he was on the receiving end of a 9-1 loss. He allowed 10 hits and seven runs in five innings.
“I remember [Ian] Kinsler hit a ball off my wrist in the first inning,” Lee said. “It wasn’t my best performance, but I kept on pitching.”
Sandberg’s opening day nod came two days after Lee pitched five shutout innings against Boston in Fort Myers on Saturday night.
While Hamels, last year’s opening day starter, has spent the spring building arm strength after an offseason bout of shoulder tendinitis, Lee has plowed through his spring with workmanlike efficiency. His spring totals after four starts: 13 2/3 innings, 11 hits, 4 earned runs, 2 walks, 13 strikeouts.
Lee has two more spring tune-ups remaining.
“I feel strong,” the 35-year-old lefty said. “I’m ready to go. I’m looking forward to getting out of here and playing some meaningful games during the season.”
The Phillies need to play meaningful games deep into the schedule or this could be a season of transition for Lee. Phillies management could commit to a serious rebuilding effort if the team is headed toward a third straight season of missing the postseason. Lee could be traded in July if the Phillies enter a rebuilding mode.
Lee believes this Phillies club can contend.
“Obviously, Cole being injured is not good,” he said. “But we get him back and we’re going to be pretty strong. Health is the key to everything. If [the starting pitchers] stay healthy and continue to go out there, we’ll give the team a chance to win a lot.”