Phillies begin Spring Training

February 14, 2008 4:41:21 PM PST
Stay focused. Be relaxed. The message was clear for the Philadelphia Phillies on the first day of spring training. The defending National League East champions won't be satisfied with simply making the playoffs. They want to win it all.

So, they'll need to play loose and not lose sight of their goal.

Even before manager Charlie Manuel preached that point Thursday, when pitchers and catchers reported to camp, it was obvious the players understood it.

They walked around the clubhouse wearing red T-shirts that said on the back, "Winning Starts Now." That's a sign of a team on a mission.

But it was the front part of the shirt that grabbed most of the attention and drew quite a bit of laughter. There was an old picture of a shirtless Pat Burrell doing biceps concentration curls. Above the bare-chested photo read, "Man or machine."

Burrell, the team's left fielder, wasn't around to defend himself. He probably isn't aware that some prankster had the shirts printed. No matter, everyone had some fun at Burrell's expense.

Ryan Howard, the 2006 NL MVP, held up the shirt and took a picture with his camera phone. Surely, he texted that to a few buddies.

This is the way Manuel likes his team. They enjoy being around each other and have excellent chemistry. More important, they're driven to win.

"The message I wanted to send was basically about competing, staying relaxed and staying focused on what you're doing," Manuel said he told players in a meeting.

This time last year the Phillies felt some pressure after falling short of a wild-card spot in the final weekend two straight seasons. Jimmy Rollins' bold prediction that Philly was the team to beat in the division only raised the heat.

A poor start and a slew of injuries put the Phillies in a deep hole and they had to chase the New York Mets the entire season.

Down seven games with 17 remaining, the Fightin' Phils finally caught New York the last weekend and captured their first division championship since 1993 on the final day.

But the remarkable run came to an abrupt end when the streaking Colorado Rockies swept the Phillies in the first round. That left a sour taste.

"It was too short," ace left-hander Cole Hamels said. "We need to defend something, but we need to get something more. We still have the hunger to fight because we didn't achieve what we wanted."

The sting of losing in the playoffs lingered for a while. Many players felt they had missed an opportunity.

"When the season ended, I was disappointed," reliever Tom Gordon said. "I felt we had the best team."

Are they better now?

The Phillies strengthened their pitching staff in the offseason, upgraded significantly at third base and bolstered the bench. But the Mets added two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.

It could make for another close division race.

The acquisition of closer Brad Lidge from Houston allowed Brett Myers to return to the starting rotation after pitching well as a reliever last season. Though Myers prefers closing, he and Hamels give the Phillies a solid 1-2 punch.

J.C. Romero, who was outstanding down the stretch, re-signed and joins Gordon and Ryan Madson to give Philly a deep bullpen.

Free-agent addition Chad Durbin provides depth because he can be a starter or reliever, and newly added Kris Benson could be a wild card if he's healthy.

Pedro Feliz, a solid defensive player who averaged 21 homers and 84 RBIs in San Francisco since 2004, takes over for a three-man platoon at third base.

The departure of All-Star center fielder Aaron Rowand is a big loss. His leadership skills might be missed even more than his Gold Glove-winning defense, .309 average and 27 homers.

Shane Victorino moves over from right field to play center and Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth will replace Rowand in the lineup.

With Greg Dobbs, possibly Wes Helms, Chris Coste, So Taguchi, Eric Bruntlett and either Jenkins or Werth on the bench, Manuel has better pinch-hitting options.

The lineup might be the best in the league with Howard, reigning NL MVP Rollins, Chase Utley and Burrell leading the way.

It doesn't hurt the team has a ton of confidence and some swagger.

"Last year helped us, our organization and the city of Philadelphia," Manuel said. "They have expectations of us and we have expectations of ourselves."