Phillies set to defend NL East title

March 28, 2008 12:21:53 PM PDT
Jimmy Rollins let Carlos Beltran do all the talking this spring.These Philadelphia Phillies don't have to tell people how good they are. They proved it last year by capturing their first NL East championship since 1993 after a remarkable late-season run.

Trailing the Mets by seven games with 17 remaining, the Fightin' Phils finally caught New York on the final weekend and won the division on the last day. But the Colorado Rockies spoiled Philly's postseason party with a three-game sweep in the first round.

Just getting to the playoffs won't cut it this year. The goal is to win it all.

"I'd like to get a little deeper in the playoffs, or a lot deeper, how about as deep as you can get," Rollins said.

Rollins took some heat and put pressure on himself last year when he said the Phillies were the team to beat in the East a month before spring training. The switch-hitting shortstop backed it up with an MVP season and looked like a prophet when the Phillies took advantage of New York's historic collapse.

Beltran put the spotlight back on the Mets last month when the star center fielder sent an in-your-face message to Rollins that New York is the team to beat this year. The addition of two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana certainly boosted the Mets' chances.

Given numerous opportunities to fire back, Rollins pretty much kept a low profile. He doesn't need to challenge his teammates with bold claims anymore. Getting swept by Colorado is enough motivation for the Phillies, who have just one World Series championship in franchise history.

"The goal was to get to the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win a championship. That fell way short," Rollins said.

Manager Charlie Manuel simply pointed to a baseball bat sitting in his office whenever he was asked to make a prediction or react to Beltran's boast.

"I let Louisville do the talking," Manuel said more than once.

Players look back at last season with pride because they overcame a slew of injuries at key positions and surpassed the Mets. Yet, there's an overwhelming sense of unfinished business.

"We still have so much more to prove," All-Star left-hander Cole Hamels said. "We want something more. We didn't achieve what we wanted."

Reliever Tom Gordon had a tough time watching the playoffs after the Phillies were eliminated. He's not planning on a one-and-done cameo this time.

"I think we definitely have a team that can go further," said Gordon, who will begin the season as the closer because of an injury to Brad Lidge.

Acquiring Lidge from the Houston Astros was Philadelphia's most significant offseason move. It strengthened the bullpen and rotation because it allowed Brett Myers to return to starting, even though he prefers closing. Myers and Hamels anchor a five-man rotation that includes Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton.

The 45-year-old Moyer still gets batters out with a variety of slow pitches, but sometimes he gets hit real hard. Kendrick has to prove he wasn't a one-year wonder after coming up from Double-A and going 10-4. Eaton is coming off a terrible season in which he posted a 6.29 ERA. He might not be on the roster if it weren't for his hefty contract.

If Lidge is healthy, the Phillies could have one of the deepest bullpens in the league. Gordon, Ryan Madson and left-hander J.C. Romero are solid relievers and Chad Durbin is versatile, so Manuel has plenty of options.

A potent lineup that's led the league in runs two straight years makes it easier on the pitchers because they simply have to keep it close. There aren't too many 2-1 games at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.

First baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and Rollins arguably are the best players at their positions in the NL. Utley could've followed Howard as MVP last year if he hadn't missed a month with a broken hand. He'll try to give the Phillies an unprecedented three MVPs in a row this season.

Left fielder Pat Burrell enters a contract year off a strong second half, and new third baseman Pedro Feliz is a major upgrade at a spot where the Phillies sorely lacked offense.

The departure of All-Star center fielder Aaron Rowand might be felt more in the clubhouse than on the field. Rowand's leadership skills were as valuable as his offensive production and Gold Glove defense.

Shane Victorino moves over from right field to play center, and Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth will platoon in right.

"We have a bitter taste in our mouth after the way the season ended," Victorino said.

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