Phillies keep pitching for championship run
CLEARWATER, Fla. --- The Philadelphia Phillies enter Spring Training with a recent history that is distinctly mixed. Both resounding success and deep disappointment are present in this blend.
The current Phillies do not appear to be less than the 2011 team. As a basis for comparison, that is saying a lot. But the 2012 Phils have reasons to believe that they can create a much happier ending than their immediate predecessors achieved.
For six months last season, the Phillies were the best team in baseball. Their starting rotation had been heavily and relentlessly hyped, but the Philadelphia pitchers lived up to that hype. The Phils won 102 games. By any reasonable measurement, they had the best pitching in the Majors.
For instance, Philadelphia led in team ERA at 3.02. Second place wasn't close. The Phillies' staff WHIP was also the best at a remarkable 1.17. There are entire staffs elsewhere in the Majors on which the number of pitchers with a WHIP as good as 1.17 can be counted on the fingers of one hand with a couple of fingers unused.
So, what happened next to the 2011 Phils was a reminder of a convenient sports adage:
It's not the better team that wins. It's the team that's playing better.
The Phillies lost the National League Division Series in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Game 5, a 1-0 St. Louis victory, was an October classic. As terrific as Roy Halladay was for the Phils, Chris Carpenter was just a bit better for the Cards, making a first-inning run stand up for the entire game. The Cardinals' relatively modest 90-72 record was eventually transformed into a World Series championship.
It turned out that nobody could beat the Cardinals last October. But that was of very little consolation to the Phils.
Halladay wanted to come to the Phillies because he thought that the Philadelphia organization offered him the best opportunity to win a World Series. Nothing that happened last October has changed his mind.
"I still feel like this is best place to do it," Halladay said on Tuesday. "The last two years, we hit teams that were peaking at the right time. I still think we have the talent on this team to overcome teams that are playing like that."
The Phils have carved out a niche for themselves in a position very close to the top of the game. They have established a standard of regular-season excellence; winning five straight division titles. But they have had a pattern of declining dividends in the postseason. Since 2008, in order, they have won a World Series, lost a World Series, lost in a Championship Series, lost in a Division Series.
Now, the current group tries to maintain the regular season excellence but carry it further in the postseason. Can it be done? With pitching like this, why not?
Phillies pitchers and catchers were diligently at work on Tuesday. You could look around the Carpenter Complex fields and see pitching greatness personified in almost any direction.
Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee went a combined 50-23 last season, with a collective ERA of 2.56. All three finished among the top five in voting for the NL Cy Young Award. Vance Worley established himself in the rotation, finishing with an 11-3 record with a 3.02 ERA. Joe Blanton missed much of the season with an elbow injury, but demonstrated that he was healthy when he returned late in the season. If needed, Kyle Kendrick would be a more than reasonable rotation option.
True, Roy Oswalt is gone from the starting rotation. But he was limited by a back injury last year and, by the standards of this rotation, had a very ordinary season.
In the bullpen, Ryan Madson, who inherited the closer's role last season because of injuries, was highly impressive with 32 saves in 34 opportunities. He went to the Reds in free agency, but the Phils more than compensated for his departure by signing Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best closers in the game over six seasons with the Red Sox. There isn't any net loss here, either.
Yes, the Phillies do have questions marks in the other half of the game. First baseman Ryan Howard, whose power has been a staple of the Philadelphia lineup, will miss time at the start of the season while recovering from a ruptured left Achilles tendon. The left-field situation is unsettled.
On the other hand, second baseman Chase Utley shouldn't miss a large portion of the early season as he did last year. And the return of Jim Thome, one way or another, will be a plus. It remains to be seen whether Thome will be able to play much first base in Howard's absence. But his presence, both as a left-handed bat off the bench and as a widely respected and admired player, will be a positive.
All factors taken together, the Phils look at the 2012 season and find their chances for another World Series championship to be solidly in place.
"That's exactly how I feel," manager Charlie Manuel said on Tuesday. "I like our team. Dubes [pitching coach Rich Dubee] has heard me say it. I've heard him say it. Our goal always is to go to the World Series and win, and the last couple of years, we didn't get that far. But it wasn't for lack of focus or trying to get to exactly where we wanted to get to.
"I got an old saying; if we keep going there, sooner or later we're going to get another one. Why shouldn't this be the year?"
It is a reasonable question. Especially with this kind of pitching, why shouldn't this be the year?
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.