Still a mound of talent pitching for the Phillies

(David M Warren and Yong Kim/Staff Photographers)

Cliff Lee finished six uneventful innings on a Thursday in March and untucked his jersey in the musty visitors clubhouse at Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. His son, Jaxson, climbed on a ratty couch, and Lee, as he is apt to do, playfully swung his red belt. Father and son smiled.

"It's another spring," Lee said. "Nothing special."

No, there was no extravagant news conference arranged in the cafeteria in Clearwater to unveil a rotation that fulfilled almost every ounce of hype tossed its way. Lee did most of the talking that day last February, when Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and Joe Blanton sat beside him biding time until they could resume their lives.

That scene was replaced this spring with Ruben Amaro Jr. seated in the Phillies dugout at Bright House Field, deflecting questions regarding the uncertain future of Chase Utley and his team's offense. It was then when the general manager might have indirectly established these Phillies' motto.

"We're going to have to catch the ball and pitch it," Amaro said.

It'll be hard to top 2011. The Phillies allowed 3.27 runs per game, the franchise's lowest mark since 1917. They led the National League in ERA for the first time since 1952. That 3.02 ERA was the lowest for any team since the 1989 Dodgers. And their 3.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the second highest in major-league history.

Gone is Oswalt, who now spends his days throwing in Mississippi hoping for a midseason job to his liking. In his place is Vance Worley, the 24-year-old bespectacled righthander who caught more than just opposing hitters looking with his 2011 performance.

Ryan Madson is beginning the arduous task of recovery from Tommy John surgery in Cincinnati while Jonathan Papelbon is selecting his new entrance music for a rabid fan base. The rest of the bullpen looks familiar, and is teeming with promising talent at triple A.

"I expect us to be similar," Lee said. "We're not going to try to one-up last year or anything like that. We're just going to go out there and do what we do, and we've got the talent to give the team a chance to win every time. So I like our chances."

But the margin for error is even slimmer in 2012 without Utley and Ryan Howard. The Phils were 30-47 (.390) when they scored three or fewer runs, and only five teams in the previous 30 years posted better marks.

"Obviously we'd like to have a huge lead every time," Lee said. "Regardless if you've got a big lead or it's a close game, we're still going to try to throw up zeroes every time. For me the score doesn't matter. I'm going to try to do the same thing every inning."

Just about every pitcher in the Phillies clubhouse echoed those sentiments this spring, but none more eloquently than Halladay. The Phillies have won 49 of Halladay's 70 starts in his first two seasons. The pressure, he says, does not increase.

"I don't think there's a guy on the staff or field who doesn't expect to go out and do their job," Halladay said. "That's what I'm going to go out and do, and hold myself accountable. I don't think that means more pressure. One guy isn't going to make up for a lack of two guys. It has to be a team effort. We have to do a job consistently. We have enough good players. We don't need a star every day - we just need to go out there and do what we're supposed to do."

Worley and Blanton are supposed to anchor the back of the powerful rotation. Both had decent springs, Blanton most notably.

The Phillies had no idea what to expect from Blanton, who pitched all of 411/3 innings in 2011 while limited by a nebulous elbow injury. But for a year and a half after coming to Philadelphia, Blanton was an above-average pitcher and manned the middle of the rotation. They will certainly take that in 2012 from their fifth starter.

Lee sees potential in Worley and the young relievers, who now have the experience of a full season. The arms can compensate for a battered offense.

"We still have potential to put up those runs," Lee said. "But with the pitching we've got, it's not as necessary."


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