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12/14/10 10:37 AM EST

Phils' fearsome foursome has work to do

Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels must earn 'best ever' tag

Roy Halladay has two Cy Young Awards, and four other top-five placements.

Roy Oswalt has five top-five finishes in Cy Young races.

Cole Hamels was the 2008 postseason MVP, did a pretty good reenactment of that joyride a couple of months ago and turns 27 in a couple of weeks.

Cliff Lee was untouchable two years ago, has become an October legend and is returning to Philadelphia to give the Phillies baseball's version of the Fantastic Four (no Jessica Alba, but no one will notice).

Do the Phillies and their Merlin of a general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., now also have baseball's top starting rotation? You'll get little dissent there.

Said Amaro last summer upon swinging the deal to land Oswalt from the Houston Astros, "We've gotten close to three No. 1 starters in our rotation." And Cool Hand Lee makes four.

But is this baseball's best foursome ever? Their collective credits are unassailable, yet this is a much tougher call -- mostly because such a laurel is earned, not bestowed, and in baseball, results have a way of falling short of potential.

The modern target in this regard is the rotation of the 1971 Baltimore Orioles, the only team to enlist a quartet of 20-game winners: Dave McNally (21-5), Jim Palmer (20-9), Mike Cuellar (20-9) and Pat Dobson (20-8) took care of 81 of those American League champs' 101 wins.

For a modern comparison, the 2010 Phillies (who already had the most wins in the Majors, shudder) got 70 of their 97 wins out of their starters.

Philadelphia's contemporary challengers are the Giants, who have been clearing their throats in the hours since the Lee-Phillies reunion. They have a fresh World Series title -- earned partly through Philadelphia, in the National Leageue Championship Series -- minted by their own starting pitching.

However, in a comparison of rotation "back ends," Oswalt-Hamels trumps Jonathan Sanchez-Madison Bumgarner.

San Francisco's Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum can more legitimately contest another historical claim made on behalf of Halladay-Lee:

This is baseball's best one-two punch since the storied Dodgers tandem of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. From 1961-66, the two Hall of Famers won 240 games, a remarkable 43 percentage of those good teams' totals.

While this is only one yardstick, consider the combined records of the best individual seasons of some notable combos:

• Drysdale-Koufax: 50-14
• Bob Gibson-Steve Carlton: 50-17
• Juan Marichal-Jack Sanford: 49-15
• Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling: 46-11
• Tom Seaver-Jerry Koosman: 46-17
• Maddux-Glavine: 41-8
• Lincecum-Cain: 32-13
• Halladay-Lee: 44-10.

While the win total of Halladay and Lee is slightly lower than that of predecessors, it stands out in an era when bullpens are inheriting an increasing share of decisions. And their winning percentage is the best on this list.

You can safely make this boast, Philly: This is the best foursome in the playoffs era, in which short series make starting pitching king. It nullifies the other team; the two Roys and Hamels did just that to the Reds in the last NL Division Series.

In this regard, the Phantastic Phour is royal. They have done it before -- they're a combined 20-8 with a sub-3.00 ERA in the postseason -- and no one would bet against their collective chances of doing it in October again.

Getting there is the hard part, a treacherous six-month journey across a path of destiny-busting potholes.

Realists -- cynics? -- often throw the 1993-2002 Atlanta Braves at people who like to jump to conclusions at such times. The triad that anchored those teams' rotations had pretty good credentials of its own: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had seven Cy Young Awards and a total of 18 top-five finishes among them. Yet during that decade, the Braves made it to only two World Series and won just one of them.

A gilded rotation such as the one the Phillies have assembled must, at the very least, make you slump-proof. It is a chamber clogged with stoppers. Losing streaks should become extinct.

But here is something else about those 1993-2002 Braves, perhaps a more relevant cautionary note: In each of those seasons, they had at least one losing streak of four games or more.

Still, opponents on the Phillies' 2011 schedule now face the bleak prospect of having to beat two of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels to take any three-game series.

Incidentally, Amaro's all-in play for Lee would suggest he has some inside information on something about which the rest of us are still only speculating: that MLB will gradually cut through the red tape to expanding the Division Series format from five to seven games.

Otherwise, manager Charlie Manuel's biggest problem would appear to be something almost inconceivable: He would have to decide who to omit from the typical three-man rotation for the first tier of the playoffs.

Halladay? Lee? Oswalt? Hamels? Any rotation that couldn't accommodate them all is pretty decent.

It is a possible headache Manuel and the Phillies will have to earn. That's why they play the games, all 162 of them. In Philadelphia, it will be less a campaign than a crusade to validate the popular first reaction: This is a rotation that belongs on baseball's Mt. Rushmore.

Will Messrs. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels put the season in the books? Or in a time capsule?

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.