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Halladay pleased with his Spring Training

The Pittsburgh Alleghenys joined the National League in 1887, and on May 30 of that year, hosted the Philadelphia Quakers at Recreation Park. That began a lively competition between Pennsylvania's Major League clubs that has percolated ever since.

From 1974 through '81, either the Phillies or Pirates won the National League East. In four of those seasons, the team that didn't win finished second.

A lot has changed for both organizations since then. But the common thread when they meet again to open the 2012 season Thursday in Pittsburgh at 1:35 p.m. ET will be continuation.

The Phillies will try to continue the success they've had while winning the last five NL East titles.

The Pirates will be looking to continue building on the improvement they made last season, when they had their most wins since 2004, lowered the staff ERA by almost a full run and had three All-Stars for the first time since 1990.

Recent records aside, there will be no lack of drama when they get together again on Opening Day at PNC Park. Here's a stat: During the Phillies' five-year division title run, they're 6-10 in the 'Burgh.

Then there's the fact that though the Pirates finished with their 19th straight losing season in 2011, they also showed a tantalizing glimpse of their potential. They were in first place in late July before stumbling in the final two months.

While it's always dangerous to try to oversimplify the results of two full months of a baseball season, it's instructive to note that in the first four months, the Bucs had a team ERA of 3.43. In the final two months, that rose to 5.22.

Looking a little deeper, in the first four months, manager Clint Hurdle was able to send the same five starters to the mound almost every night. When wear and tear began to set in -- an oblique injury for Kevin Correia, shoulder issues for Paul Maholm, even Charlie Morton missed a start with arm fatigue -- the impact was dramatic.

That's why the under-the-radar additions of starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard -- who gets the call for Opening Day against Phillies ace Roy Halladay -- could be significant. That, plus the fact that a young group of players now has the experience of knowing how it feels to lead the division going into August, has raised hopes that the Pirates are finally moving in the right direction.

"The players have grasped that it's easier to get to this point than to stay at this point," manager Clint Hurdle told reporters at the start of Spring Training. "So their buy-ins are bigger."

Another similarity between the Pirates and Phillies is that both teams have their skeptics but remain outwardly unfazed.

Chairman Bob Nutting has said the Pirates are "absolutely committed" to winning a division title. And third baseman Casey McGehee, who was part of winning Brewers teams, thinks that's a reasonable goal.

"Forget this .500 stuff. This team can do something special. The talent's here to shoot for the postseason, to make a run for the postseason," he told MLB.com.

The Pirates are trying to get where the Phillies have been. And been and been and been. That creates unique challenges, as well, especially since manager Charlie Manuel will be without his Nos. 3-4 hitters, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard, for the foreseeable future.

Even in the waning days of Spring Training, several issues were unresolved. Could Juan Pierre, released by the White Sox and signed by the Phillies to a Minor League contract, end up leading off most nights? Will Jimmy Rollins, a career leadoff guy, bat third? Can 41-year-old Jim Thome stand up to the rigors of playing first base more than a day or two a week? Will John Mayberry Jr. spend most of his time in left or at first? Is 22-year-old Freddy Galvis, a lifelong shortstop, ready to step in for Utley at second?

Manuel smiled when those doubts were raised.

"I think until somebody beats us, we're the team to beat. That's what I think," he said. "We ain't going to lay down for anybody. We've got a bunch of guys that like to play. You can smack us. We're not going to turn the other cheek. We're going to fight you back. We ain't going to lay down and die. We've got some guys on our team that are going to make sure of that.

"You can say whatever you want to say. It's up to us to make sure we handle our business. As a matter of fact, I like it when they talk a lot about us, really. That definitely might have something to do with motivating us, too."

So as the Pirates and Phillies prepare to kick off another season, we'll close with another brief history lesson. These ancient foes have played each other on Opening Day five times previously.

And the Pirates have won every time.

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