Phillies 2012

It was a Friday. Oct. 7. A grave-digger kind of night, cold and foreboding, ominous and haunted, rife with the chilling premonition that nothing good was going to come of it.

And sure enough, on the last pitch of the last out of the last game of the first round of the 2011 National League playoffs, the massive Ryan Howard, the Big Bopper, first hopped, then limped, and, finally, his Achilles tendon rupturing, gave way completely, and part way down the first-base line crumpled and went down like the Titanic, taking with him the Phillies' last chance.

I-120409955
Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard worked out on a practice field without his protective boot during warm-ups for the teamÕs game with the New York Yankees in Clearwater, March 23, 2012.

And thus endeth the Glory Days of the Fightin's.

Or maybe not.

Maybe there's one last hurrah to be squeezed out before age and infirmity take their inexorable toll. Nothing lasts forever, never more applicable than in sports, so comes now the season of 2012, which will either be an extension of what has been the Golden Age of Philadelphia baseball, yet another summer of love, with turnstiles clicking madly, the ballpark the place to be â ¦ or â ¦ or it will be the beginning of the end of what has been one sweet run. Savor it now; winter is coming.

You sift through the tea leaves in search of clues and you are left with conflicting trends. Follow this bouncing ball: Since 2008 the Phillies have won more games in each succeeding season: 92 in 2008, 93 in 2009, 97 in 2010, 102 in 2011.

And yet in each succeeding season they have gone the wrong way. They won the World Series in 2008, they lost in the Series in 2009, they lost in the League Championship Series in 2010, and they lost in the division series in 2011.

Curiouser and curiouser.

We do know that the core of the team has some serious mileage on it, not to mention surgical scars. At any moment of the long and winding season, another tendon, another muscle, another bit of cartilage could go Sproiiiinnnngggg! and everything could unravel.

Even before the first pitch leaves Roy Halladay's hand in Pittsburgh on Thursday, the Fightin's are lugging a serious handicap. Howard and Chase Utley won't be playing. For how long? Conflicting reports there. On occasion you get the feeling that with the Phillies the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. The unthinkable would be that they are done, period.

The Utley matter is especially fragile because he is not forthcoming about himself and is now paying the price for, of all things in this age of the overpaid prima donna, playing too hard. Actually, he began to deteriorate two years ago.

Those two represent the offensive engine room, the 3 and 4 holes, and the right side of the infield, and without both of them the Fightin's are going to have to perform a serious philosophical makeover. The days of three-run home runs - Charlie Manuel's favored approach - are gone. The offense will become station to station, move the runners along, the standardized small-ball offense.

Bunting? No, you mention bunting to the manager and he reacts like a man who has just swallowed a bad oyster.

What he has promised to get the boys to try is thoughtful and selective and patient at-bats. Good luck with that, Cholly. Almost all of the crew swing first and ask questions later. It's not that they cannot execute because no one sees them trying. Being professionals, it would seem they might be willing to take a stab at it. Alas, stubborn is as stubborn does.

There will be some spotlight moments, among them: Jim Thome unbuttoning his shirt and getting a real rip at the ball. Anything requiring the entertaining presence of Hunter (Ichabod Crane) Pence. The steadying, thoroughly professional play of catcher Carlos Ruiz; one National League scout said Chooch is the Phillies MVP. The fate, or future, of Freddy Galvis, the rookie with the platinum glove. Jonathan Papelbon, the new closer, straight from the man-with-his-hair-on-fire school of relieving. And Jimmy Rollins, who elegantly vacuums large acreages and who, before you ask, will still be swinging early and often, so just learn to love it.

Now we come to that part of the poker game when you have to lay down your hand, and the Phillies oblige this way: Ace (Halladay), ace (Cliff Lee), ace (Cole Hamels), jack (Vance Worley), jack (Joe Blanton).

There is not a better rotation in all of baseball, and probably not any its equal. In 2011, those first four were the first to start 20 games at least and post an ERA of 3.00 or lower since 1915. And that is the magic number: 3. It lessens the pressure on the offense, knowing that if it can squeeze out four runs it almost certainly wins.

Halladay is the bell cow, an automatic contender for the Cy Young. Lee has won 20 and should again. Hamels is due to do that. Worley looks like an emerging star. Blanton is a working man's pitcher. The bullpen is serviceable, take a deep inhale and hold it.

They have, it says here, a sixth straight division championship in them, one more Glory Day, 93 wins, into the playoffs, and there, in a short series, when pitching is everything, they are, ahem, well-armed.


Bill Lyon is the author of "Deadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life." E-mail him lyon1964@comcast.net.