Phillies comfortable in role as defending champs

February, 20, 2009
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- One of the most unfortunate things about the 2008 World Series is that it was drowned and delayed, with weather and the hubbub of the television ratings smudging the triumph of a Phillies team in whom the game should have rejoiced.

Oh, up the Jersey Turnpike it was about the Mets losing, not the Phillies winning, even if Philadelphia did finish the past two seasons 13-3 and 13-4.

Fast-forward to spring training and there are Cole Hamels and Chase Utley rejoicing in the notion that Phils-Mets could be the National League's Yankees-Red Sox. No mention of respect. "I had friends ask me what it was like to win," Hamels says. "I tell them I can't adequately express myself, except that there's no greater feeling than for an athlete to win his sport's championship."

There are few teams in the past few years who play with more passion or more joy. Jimmy Rollins, like Dustin Pedroia, is human Red Bull, on fire 24/7. Same for Shane Victorino. And Utley. "There are special relationships here," says Utley, who was raised never to think in the first-person pronoun. "That's why I am so proud to have won with this team, because of the people, because of the organization, because of the fans. … This is unique, and I think it will remain that way for a while."

The reality is that no team has won consecutive World Series since the 1999-2000 Yankees, a real wall the Phillies will have to climb. But in the early days of this spring, there are reasons players continually talk about why they will be better, and why they consider it a compliment that the Mets have a Phillies bull's-eye up in their clubhouse.

The most important sign this spring is that Utley believes that three months after hip surgery not only will he be healthier than at any time the past two years, but will be ready for Opening Day. This from a man who in his first 2,500 major league at-bats has the highest OPS of any second baseman in baseball history.

"There were times when it got tight the last couple of years," Utley says. "It got worse as last season went along. It occasionally bothered me in the field, but mainly at the plate. I just didn't have the flexibility." Utley hit 27 homers through July, six the rest of the way, but any of us who asked him were answered with a staunch denial. "I didn't want to become a storyline," he says. "The story was the team trying to win a World Series."

Ryan Howard got a big contract and showed up in spring training in the best shape of his career, like an outside linebacker. Brett Myers, 28 and in his free-agent walk year, looks as if he's 19, in phenomenal shape. Joe Blanton is in the best shape of his career. OK, they lost Pat Burrell, but opened Dave Montgomery's checkbook to sign the reliable Raul Ibanez. Yes, that makes them left-handed-heavy, but manager Charlie Manuel predicts this is Jayson Werth's "breakout season."

Remember, early in his career, Werth was a catcher, then had back problems, and after moving to the outfield was hit by an A.J. Burnett pitch in the first inning of the first spring training game in 2006 and missed the entire season. It wasn't until 2008 -- when he set career highs with 134 games and 418 at-bats -- that he began to find himself. "I needed at-bats and playing time," says Werth, who is one of the league's most athletic corner outfielders (remember, not only were his grandfather and uncle major leaguers, but his mother Kim Schofield Werth still holds the women's national 100-yard dash title, earned before they went to 100 meters). Manuel points out that hitting behind Utley and Howard will get Werth a lot of RBI opportunities against lefties, against whom he had a 1.020 OPS, but that his swing against right-handers, as Manuel said, "kept getting better as the season went on."

The manager loves the addition of 24-year-old rookie Jason Donald, who put up an .889 OPS at Double-A Reading and played well in the Olympics. "He reminds me of Craig Biggio," Manuel says. "He can run. He's got that attitude. He's going to help us at third, short and second."

Ruben Amaro has taken over the general manager's job, but he is always the first to acknowledge that these Phillies reflect Pat Gillick's personality, as well as the extraordinary judgment reflected in Gillick's three World Series rings.

The difference between the Phillies and Mets last year was the bullpen, as Brad Lidge went 46-for-46. And admits to his humanity. Lidge admitted to teammates early in the season that he starts to get sick before he comes into big situations; in an ESPN roundtable when Dave Righetti and Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Goose Gossage were with Oakland, they all admitted to similar fear of failure.

"It's good because of the adrenaline," Lidge says. "I'm nervous enough, and my stomach gets into knots and I feel sick. But if I smell food … then I do start to throw up.

"Right in back of the bullpen in Philly we have a crab-fries stand. They are great. I love them. If I know I'm not going to pitch, I love the smell and sometimes eat them. But if I think I may be going into try to close a game, the smell makes me throw up. But as I say, it's good, because it's edge, adrenaline."

So it's not just having two MVP winners and a second baseman with a staggering OPS.

It's also the crab fries, and they are not going away.



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?