The Phillies' pitching staff of legends might have to cover for weak spots

The Phillies pitching staff may have to cover for weak spots in the lineup. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

THE FIRST DAY of any war is always the best day.

The Rebs were gonna lick the Yankees by Christmas. The Kaiser would review the troops in Paris before the first frost of 1914. The Brits would fold in 1940.

Baseball would kneel before the Phillies' Phab Phour.

Every ruler was convinced God was on his side.

There are no casualties on the first day.

But Sherman got it right: War is hell . . .

The first day of the 2011 baseball season, almost certain to be a long war of attrition, is now.

The Phillies will fire the first shot of the 162-game marathon with one arm tied behind their backs. No walkover here.

Picture any great team of the Free Agent Era going into a season without a certified No. 3 and No. 5 hitter, without their closer.

Hard to conceive, Harry.

But Charlie Manuel will begin what promises to be an extended jury-rigging process without the best all-around player of his stewardship, Chase Utley. He will patch and fill in a No. 5 hole formerly manned by free agent Jayson Werth. Hot hand one day. Strong hunch another. We will see Jimmy Rollins batting third, Raul Ibanez, as well. A revolving door at No. 5 unless somebody steps up or Domonic Brown heals with a vengeance. It's a hell of a way to run a railroad or a ballclub, but there are few options.

There is a chance Utley's spot will be up for grabs for weeks, perhaps months, and nobody would rule out him missing the entire season if surgery becomes the only viable option.

Brad Lidge's ominous shoulder condition was apparently present from his first throwing session in February. It creates a falling domino effect from new closer down through mopup role. An extra man who played well enough to make the 25-man Opening Day roster will be screwed by the expansion of the pitching staff from 11 to 12 pitchers. The Turk has already paid his visit.

And whatever happened to the 10-man staff? The 15 position players and 10-man pitching staff went out about the same time as 75-cents-a-gallon gas.

Phillies teams have won pennants with prodigious offenses carrying starting pitching staffs that were less than deep in the middle and back end. The 1993 crazies were a classic example, propping a No. 6-ranked pitching staff by leading the league in eight offensive categories and finishing second in four others.

Spring Training 2011 began with an unprecedented, almost jingoistic press conference for five starting pitchers. It would have been just Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. But in a resounding show of solidarity, the Four Aces refused to front a media dog-and-pony show unless No. 5 starter Joe Blanton was given equal billing.

That act of unity could have foreshadowed the type of group effort it will take to overcome the gutting of the middle of the batting order and the possible void at the back end of the bullpen.

No pitching rotation has gone into a major league season with more hype or higher expectations than H-L-O-H-B.

But baseball's Dubee Brothers better turn out to be "A Long Train Runnin' " . . .

Halladay finished his magnificent exhibition season with the flourish of three scoreless innings against the Braves in Lake Buena Vista. He will carry a 4-0 record and an otherworldly 0.48 ERA into his date at the Bank against the Astros and Brett Myers. From his first anvil-heavy and serpentine fastball thrown from a practice mound at the Carpenter Complex, to his final serve last Sunday, Halladay seemed to be a man on a mission that can only end in November.

While it is trendy to insist spring-training exhibitions are meaningless, the Phillies accomplished some important goals during 6 weeks highlighted by spectacular weather and more SBO (Sunning on Berm Only) throngs in baseball's best exhibition ballpark. For the second straight year, the intensive scouting of Ruben Amaro and his stable of assistant GMs appears to have produced another solid and versatile bench.

Good thing . . .

Based on the premise that veteran starters are entitled to progress at different speeds during the Florida seasoning process, there should not be undue anxiety over Lee, Oswalt and Hamels not following Halladay's scary-good lead. What veteran has an 0.48 down here, anyway? If you watch the guy throw a side in December, there is little difference from what you saw yesterday. He's never going to throw a pitch without purpose, not following a midwinter workout, nor as Opening Day approaches. That is just how the man is wired.

Blanton has been solid. His changeup appears to be approaching weapon quality. He is durable and stoic, a No. 5 arm most clubs would die to have.

Despite his high ERA, Hamels has an excellent walk-to-strikeout ratio. Look, as long as these guys came north in good health, you are going to enjoy a lot of special moments, no matter who hits No. 3 and No. 5, no matter who closes.

But that's me talking. I'm the guy who, on March 17, picked these Phillies to win 100 games.

A card laid is a card played. That's my story and the rules of the game oblige me to stick to it.

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