Baseball / Sports

Chen-Chang Lee trusts he is back in Indians' bullpen mix after elbow surgery

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- When faced with the prospect of undergoing Tommy John surgery, many professional pitchers understand that the rehab process is long, but the end result is worth the pain and patience.

But when the need for the elbow ligament replacement became a reality for Indians pitching prospect Chen-Chang "C.C." Lee during the 2012 season, he wasn't convinced he would ever be the same.

"I experienced a lot of uncertainty before the surgery," Lee said through Indians interpreter Yung Chu. "I wasn't sure if I could continue to compete at a high level."

Worried that his career might be over at Triple-A Columbus -- one step from his goal of reaching the major leagues -- the Indians persuaded Lee to visit a specialist in California for an MRI to help determine his options.

Afterward, Lee's agent came up with a plan to help soothe Lee's fears, arranging a visit with a fellow Taiwanese pitcher who lived nearby.

By the time Lee and his agent left the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers' Hong-Chih Kuo, a veteran left-handed reliever who'd twice undergone Tommy John, Lee's fears abated.

"He told me if I take the surgery, there was a very good chance to return to form and maybe get better than I was, not worse," Lee, 27, said. "So I took the surgery route."

Once started down that path, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Lee refused to allow himself to wallow in negative thoughts.

"After surgery, there was no self-doubt or uncertainty," said Lee, who signed with the Tribe as a 21-year-old nondrafted free agent Sept. 16, 2008. "I felt if I could follow all (the rules of rehab), eventually I would be able to make it."

That's exactly what Lee did last year when he was called up to the Indians in mid-July, becoming the first Taiwanese player to suit up for the Tribe and just the ninth player from his country to do so in the major leagues.

The story garnered plenty of attention from various media outlets back home, and soon the shy and reserved Lee had a horde of Taiwanese journalists following his every move around Cleveland's Progressive Field -- whether he pitched that day or not.

"I appreciated all the local Taiwan media, but the attention made me feel very uncomfortable," said Lee, who tossed 4? innings over eight appearances in two brief stints last year and is with the Tribe this spring in big-league camp with the hope of winning a role in the bullpen.

Lee is a big deal back home. He first competed for his country on an international stage in the 2008 Summer Olympics before coming to the United States, then pitched for Taiwan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Last year, he was a member of the World Team at the prestigious Futures Game.

"We called C.C. up last year to help him get his feet wet," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "His pattern has been he usually needs a little exposure first before he dominates. His minor-league career was like that and we hope that's what happens up here."

Armed with a mid-90s fastball, one of the best sinker/sliders in the organization and a deceptive three-quarters delivery, Lee is the Tribe's eighth best prospect entering the 2014 season, according to Baseball America.

On Friday morning, Lee was one of a handful of the club's pitchers to throw to live hitters.

"I felt pretty good for the first time, but my velocity was a tick low," Lee said. "Over spring, my control and command will get better and I will get more comfortable."

(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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