Win-or-bust Phillies hit by injuries to All-Stars
The Philadelphia Phillies have reached the point where they will be judged on whether they win their last game.
Anything less is unacceptable.
Five straight division titles, two National League championships and one World Series victory have raised expectations to enormous proportions. It's all-or-nothing in Philadelphia, though key injuries may give the Phillies some kind of an excuse this season.
With opening day two weeks away, the Phillies are without their Nos. 3-4 hitters: Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Howard is recovering from surgery on his left Achilles and may be out until June. Utley has chronic knee problems, and his return is uncertain.
Can the World Series-or-bust Phillies win without the five-time All-Star second baseman and their former MVP first baseman?
''I think it'll be tough, but of course we can win,'' general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. ''We've had bumps in the road like this before. There's not a lot of offense, huh? We have to catch the ball and pitch it like we did last year.''
The Phillies set a franchise-record with a major league-leading 102 wins last season only to lose to eventual World Series champion St. Louis in five games in the first round.
That didn't sit well with fans or players.
''You don't get over it that easy,'' outfielder Hunter Pence said. ''We were an extremely good team last year, but now is the time to move on because we want to be an extremely good team this year and get that opportunity. Nothing is given to you and you have to earn everything.''
Since winning it all in 2008, the Phillies have actually regressed each season. They fell two wins short of repeating in `09, losing to the New York Yankees in the World Series. They had the best record in the majors in 2010, but lost to the San Francisco Giants in six games in the NL championship series.
Last year was the toughest to swallow. With four aces in their rotation, the Phillies were consensus favorites from the start. But Roy Halladay was outdueled by his buddy Chris Carpenter in a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the division series.
''It's just been very tough because every offseason, you go away from something and you feel like you were the better team, but ultimately you weren't because you got beat by the team that was the better team and you want to be the better team and I think that's kind of where it is,'' pitcher Cole Hamels said. ''We've taken a notch in an opposite direction of where we want to be. Hopefully it's motivated all the guys in the clubhouse because I know it's motivated me.''
Hamels is the only one of the top three starters with a World Series ring. Halladay and Cliff Lee are hungry to put one on their hand.
''The motivation is still going to be there,'' Halladay said. ''That's the ultimate goal. The drive is always going to be there. As long as I play, I want to win as much as I can. I still feel like this is the best place to do it.''
''We've hit teams that were peaking at the right time and playing better than they were at any point in the season. We realize we like to hit our peak a little better. But we have talent on this team to overcome playing teams like that. It's also important for us to play because we want to be there, not because we have to do something,'' he said.
Despite letting Roy Oswalt go, the Phillies still have the most talented rotation in baseball. Vance Worley won 11 games as a rookie and Joe Blanton is back from an injury-plagued season. Four-time All-Star Jonathan Papelbon left Boston, signing the richest contract ever given to a reliever to take over as Philadelphia's closer, fortifying the back end of the bullpen.
The problem for the Phillies is their offense, which used to be the team's strength. Age and injuries are problem. There's no telling when Howard and Utley will be back. Howard was injured on the final swing of last season, and then had a setback in his recovery in spring training. Utley also had trouble after showing up optimistic that he's be ready to go right away.
Manager Charlie Manuel still hasn't figured out who will replace Howard at first base, and it could be a combination of a few players, including 41-year-old Jim Thome. Rookie prospect Freddy Galvis may end up replacing Utley after once being considered the shortstop of the future.
Third baseman Placido Polanco is returning from double surgery for a sports hernia, and he has shown signs of declining as he's gotten older.
So, the Phillies are going to have to rely on their pitchers again.
The division became tougher in the offseason, too, making it unlikely the Phillies will run away with it the way they did in 2011. The Miami Marlins added Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano. The Atlanta Braves have young players who should improve following last season's collapse in September. The Washington Nationals added quality players and have quite a bit of confidence.
''Florida is better. How much better, we'll see,'' Manuel said. ''The Nationals are better. The Braves' younger players, they got a year of experience last year and they have the talent enough to hit better and I think their bullpen is one of the better bullpens in baseball.''
The Phillies re-signed Jimmy Rollins and brought in Papelbon to replace Ryan Madson. They also upgraded their bench with the additions of Thome, Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Scott Podsednik and Juan Pierre.
On paper, they're still the team to beat in the East. But they're no longer a clear-cut favorite in the league.