Monday, September 22, 2014
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For the Phillies, a spring to forget

 
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    Game 3 of the 1993 National League Division Series had just concluded and the Phillies had absorbed a second straight brutal beating from the Braves in the searing afternoon heat at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

    Soaked in sweat, a disheveled John Kruk offered a short summation of the day's events.

    "Well," he said, "that didn't go as planned."

    That also works as a recap for the Phillies' 2012 spring training.

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  • The team arrived at its long-time spring home hopeful that first baseman Ryan Howard would be back sooner rather than later from his Achilles tendon surgery and sure that second baseman Chase Utley would be ready for the start of this season.

    Wrong, and wrong again.

    After participating in batting practice early in camp, Howard ended up back in the doctor's office in Baltimore and back in a protective boot because of an infection near the surgically repaired area.

    Trainer Scott Sheridan refused to call it a setback, but for 24 days the Phillies' cleanup hitter was inactive, so regardless of the semantics, it was not good.

    Equally depressing for the Phillies and their fans was the news that Utley's plan to ease into spring training backfired because he was having the same problem with his right knee that he had a year ago with his left knee when he missed the first 46 games of the season.

    Howard and Utley are out indefinitely.

    "Maybe it has happened, but I can't remember two top-end players being out like this," said Pat Gillick, the former Phillies general manager who now serves as a senior consultant. "Chipper Jones is not going to be available for the Braves at the start of the season, but this is two guys. I can't recall two people of this significance being out at the start."

    The Phillies have endured a greater quantity of injuries leaving spring training before, but never as much quality.

    Utley and Howard have accounted for a combined 474 home runs, 972 extra-base hits, and 1,558 RBIs, so no matter how many times manager Charlie Manuel shuffles his lineup cards, he's still not going to get as good a hand as he has had with that pair over the years.

    "Certainly that worries our guys," said Dallas Green, the former Phillies manager who is also a senior consultant. "It worries the coaching staff and it worries Charlie. But you can't just say, 'Hell, we're never going to win another game.' You have to have enough faith in the guys you put out there that they're going to perform."

     

    A call to arms

    The ramifications of a lineup without Utley and Howard are not an elephant in the room for the Phillies. Green said he had a late spring-training conversation with pitching coach Rich Dubee about the men who will be counted on most in the absence of the third and fourth hitters.

    "Obviously, the main guys are the pitching staff," Green said. "There's a lot more pressure on them, there's no question about that. That's not real good because they pitched so great last year. As a matter of fact, Dubes and I just talked about it. He said, 'We can't make mistakes. We can't ask our pitchers to pitch over mistakes anymore.' It just adds too much to their pitch count and it takes an inning away from them and we can't afford that."

    To their credit, the aces - Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels - are welcoming the challenge in front of them. The Phillies offense was considered one of the best in baseball when Halladay and Lee decided they wanted to join the team, but without Utley and Howard it could be one of the least powerful lineups in the National League East.

    "You can't be anything but optimistic," Halladay said. "I've been on a lot of worse teams than this, so I'm not going to go in thinking we don't have a chance. I think that's a realistic way to believe, especially on this team and in this organization. We have some young guys who have to step up for us and we have some older guys we're going to have to lean on, too. I'm looking forward to it."

    Freddy Galvis, 22, is the youngest guy the Phillies are asking to step up - as Utley's replacement at second base. It could take as many as three men to replace Howard, with Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry Jr., and Jim Thome all expected to see time at first base.

    Centerfielder Shane Victorino will be asked to fill Utley's third spot in the order and rightfielder Hunter Pence will likely open the season as the cleanup hitter, with Thome occupying that spot in the order whenever he plays.

    The pressure will also be on shortstop Jimmy Rollins and third baseman Placido Polanco to stay healthy and productive at the top of the batting order. What the Phillies got from John Mayberry Jr. last year was a bonus. This year, they need Mayberry to replicate his 2011 season while also playing more often.

    They also need Carlos Ruiz's offense more than ever, too.

     

    Opportunity for someone

    The Phillies without Utley and Howard are like a local charity: ready and willing to accept all donations.

    "Somebody has to wake up and say, 'Hey, I got an opportunity here, so let's go,'" Green said. "You always hear players say they didn't get an opportunity. Well, there are plenty of chances now to be a part of this team, but it's up to them to perform and make it happen."

    It's also imperative that whenever the Phillies have a lead in the late innings that the bullpen shuts the door. Outside of the starting pitching, the Phillies' bullpen was the team's greatest strength a year ago.

    After opting to sign Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelpon instead of retaining Ryan Madson, the Phillies believe they are still in good hands in that department. They are certainly in better hands than they would have been if they had re-signed Madson, but if Papelbon can be as good as his predecessor, the Phillies will be pleased.

    Manuel also made it clear many times during spring training that his team needs Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo to be as good as they were a year ago, but both young relievers gave the Phillies some cause for concern late last season and again during spring training.

    Free-agent addition Chad Qualls, who has a career 11.12 ERA in 13 appearances at Citizens Bank Park, also will be counted upon in the late innings.

    The postscript to the story about Kruk and the 1993 Phillies is that they rebounded from that beating by the Braves, won the next three games, and advanced to the World Series.

    "Not to panic," is the most important message for everyone concerned, Green said. "Life goes on and certainly baseball is going to go on. Baseball guys understand it better than the fans. The fans, obviously there is panic there now. 'Oh, you can't win.' Our team has proven resilient over the years. We keep playing the game, and that's a credit to Charlie."

    It's a credit to the players, too. It's hard to imagine Halladay, Lee, or Hamels panicking, and they are the glue the Phillies need to keep things together while Utley and Howard are on the mend.

    "The good thing with this team is I feel we're only going to get better as the year goes on," Halladay said. "There have been a lot of teams I've been a part of where I felt we had as good of a team as we were going to have in spring training, and if things didn't work out the way we wanted, we were in trouble. So it's nice to have the feeling that we might be getting some big guys back as the season goes on and we're only going to get better."

     


    Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or on Twitter @brookob.

    Bob Brookover Inquirer Columnist
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