CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee was medically cleared to resume a throwing program Tuesday, but Lee made it clear that if the discomfort near his left elbow returns, "I'm not going to go out there in pain."
"There's no timeline [to make a decision on surgery]," the 36-year-old left-hander said. "I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing and do it as long as I can. I'm not going to go out there in pain to where something bad can potentially happen. That doesn't make sense to me. So I'm going to play as long as I comfortably can. When it's uncomfortable to play and it hurts to play, then it's not worth it."
Phillies officials said Tuesday that Dr. James Andrews agrees with their diagnosis that the MRI of Lee's torn common flexor tendon shows no apparent change, but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the team is "not terribly optimistic" that the veteran left-hander can avoid surgery.
Lee clearly seems to share that pessimism, after twice trying to rehab the injury since last May and experiencing the same discomfort on both occasions.
"It's not a good sign, obviously," Lee said. "It's not good. At this point in my career, it's hard to find a problem with going out there and just continuing to try and do it to see what happens. If it continues to be a problem, then I'm going to have to get it fixed."
Scott Sheridan, the Phillies' head athletic trainer, said he spoke Tuesday with Andrews, who after seeing the MRI agrees that Lee's condition "looks exactly the way it did last year."
"Right now," Sheridan said, "everyone is in agreement. We'd like Cliff to continue to toss a little bit and see where we go with it. Ultimately, if this fails, then medically we have to decide from there."
Asked why Lee continues to feel discomfort if the MRI shows no additional injury, Sheridan replied: "Well, the MRI, he has a tear in it [the elbow], so he's still feeling that. There will be some changes in his MRI for the rest of his life. There will always be something on there. And you have to understand: The MRI doesn't always match up with the symptoms that you're treating. You can't treat the MRI. You treat the player."
Lee said he viewed Andrews' input as simply something that "basically verifies what we already thought, that it's still the same."
However, he appeared puzzled that the cause for his discomfort hasn't been explained by the MRI.
"I don't know really what to think with that," he said. "I guess you can argue it's a good thing. I guess you can argue it's a bad thing. I don't really know. I guess it's good that it's not worse. I just know how I feel, and I know that it's there and I'll continue to try and throw and hopefully it doesn't get any worse."
On Thursday, Lee pitched for the first time this spring then told trainers the next morning that the discomfort near his elbow had returned and that it felt similar to when the injury first occurred in May.
If he needs surgery, the normal recovery time is six to eight months, Sheridan said Tuesday. That effectively would end the Phillies career of Lee, 36, who is in the final year of a five-year deal. Lee said Monday it could even end his baseball career overall.
A torn flexor tendon is not an injury that would result in Tommy John surgery, Sheridan said, but it would require a complete repair of the tendon, followed by an extended rehabilitation period.
Sheridan did not rule out the possibility that Lee is feeling discomfort as a result of scar tissue, adding "all these things are possibilities." He also said it is likely that a number of pitchers have been able to pitch "with something like this at some point in time, [but] you don't know it because they don't come in and complain about it. They just think that's how they're supposed to feel."
Asked why the Phillies would choose to allow Lee to resume throwing if they are not optimistic it would work, Amaro said: "It may not even take a couple of weeks. It may take a couple of days. A lot of it will depend on how he does when he continues his throwing progression."
Lee threw lightly Tuesday for the first time since reporting the discomfort and felt "normal," but said he'd also been able to do that the day after his start, when he first told the trainers something was wrong.
"It's just, there's an irritation there, and it's still there," he said. "It's not gone. So I'm just going to hope that it stays minimal and see what happens. I mean, if it starts to hurt to where I feel like something bad's going to happen, then obviously, I'm not going to keep pitching."
Although Lee talked about surgery, he said it's possible that, given his age, he might choose to retire instead.
"Yeah, I've got to factor all those things in," he said. "I've got a family at home and I've been away from them for a long time, so that is part of the equation. If I were to have the surgery, am I going to go through all that to try to pitch again, or am I going to shut it down? That's a decision that I'll have to make once that time comes, if that times comes."
And if this does mean the end of his career, he said, "I feel like I've done everything I could in my career to give myself the best chance. If it happens to be nearing the end, it is what it is. I don't have any regrets. So that's the main thing. Just as long as I can look back and comfortably say, 'I didn't cheat this or cheat that. I wish I would have done this or would have done that.' As long as I don't do that, I can live with anything."