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Phils’ Lee helped turn Wood from question mark to building block

Updated: October 3, 2013 6:26AM



Four-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee was talking in the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse recently about Arkansas neighbor and Cubs pitcher Travis Wood when closer Jonathan Papelbon interrupted from across the room.

“That’s the reason why [Wood] made the All-Star team this year,” Papelbon said, gesturing at Lee.

“Yeah, he’s right about that,” Lee said matter-of-factly. “Without me, he would have never been an All-Star.

“Put that in there,” he added with a smirk, then paused a beat. “I’m just kidding.”

He might be joking, but Wood knows how valuable the past few offseasons have been learning from and working out with one of the top pitchers in the game — even if he sent an odd signal to Lee the first time mutual friends made ­arrangements for the pitchers to get together.

Wood, a minor leaguer then, ­never called Lee that winter.

“It wasn’t [ticked] off,” Lee said. “I just thought it was dumb by him to not take advantage of that.”

Said Wood: “I agree. I might have been a little hesitant at first just because I didn’t really know him or anything. But then when I thought about it, it would have been dumb not to take him up on that.”

Just how much Lee has had to do with Wood’s success is hard to quantify.

But Wood’s performance this year isn’t.

As the Cubs lefty makes his 28th start Monday against the Miami Marlins, he is closing in on his first full season in a big-league rotation and is ranked among the top 20 pitchers in most key categories.

That includes 21 quality starts — two more than Lee has and just two off Clayton Kershaw’s major-league lead.

That’s Kershaw, the guy pitching better than anyone in the game this year; the same guy Wood outpitched and beat in his last start.

Between Wood and Lee, that’s a lot of All-Star, left-handed pitching from the neighboring Saline County towns of Bryant and Benton, Arkansas — neither of which has enough citizens to fill Wrigley Field.

“I honestly was excited for him to make the All-Star team,” said Lee, who also made it this year. “Two guys from the same small towns in Arkansas that close together, that was pretty cool.

“And just to have a hand in it felt good. I mean, to help him along the way, having worked out with him and helped him get ready for the season, that definitely feels good to me.”

No more than it did to Lee’s new offseason hunting pal Wood, who has solidified a place for himself in the middle of the Cubs’ long-term picture after finishing last season as little more than an intriguing question mark.

That may have to do with some advice Lee offered Wood on his cutter, or maybe more to do with Wood realizing how big the pitch was to Lee’s success.

“I don’t know if he’d ever ­really been pushed the way he really needed to be,” Lee said. “I think it made him a lot stronger.”

Wood agrees. And Lee believes that Wood’s breakout performance this year will translate into staying power in the league.

“He’s getting a consistent opportunity, and he’s getting stronger and developing,” Lee said. “He’s figuring out what he needs to do as far as preparation in the offseason and a routine. Every player goes through that and eventually finds something that clicks, or you find out you can’t do it.

“I think for him, he’s proven to himself that he can do it.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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