CLEARWATER, Fla. — Midway through March, when it became apparent that ace lefthander Cole Hamels would not be ready to start Opening Night thanks to a mild case of inflammation in his elbow, a reporter posed a question to potential replacement Brett Myers.
After all, this wasn't going to be a normal season opener. For the first time in 28 seasons, the Phillies would take the field as the defending champions. They would play in a nationally televised game on ESPN2 against a division rival. Quite literally, the entire league would be watching them make their first attempt at protecting their crown.
How, the reporter wanted to know, would that feel?
"I don't know," Myers said dismissively. "I've never been in that situation before."
While it might have been a premature question in March — in spring training, 95 percent of queries are exactly that — Myers' response is an accurate characterization of the situation the Phillies will find themselves inhabiting when they square off against the Braves on Sunday night.
None of them has been there before. The only player from last year's postseason roster who had previously won a World Series was reserve outfielder So Taguchi, who was released shortly after the Phillies defeated Tampa Bay in five games and clinched their first title since 1980.
Now, at the dawn of the 127th season in franchise history, the Phillies find themselves not only battling the normal on-the-field difficulties presented by a 162-game season, but history as well. Not since the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and '76 has a National League team repeated as champions. In fact, four of the last six World Series champions have missed the playoffs the following season.
The reasons for the difficulty in repeating are numerous. But one factor the Phillies say they are determined to avoid is a sense of contentment with the way last season transpired.
"What we've got to key in on, we want to be ready when the season starts," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We want to be just as hungry as we were last year. We've got to be ready to go, mentally and physically. We want to come out and play good ball. We want to concentrate on winning the game the next day. It's not like we're talking about what good a start we get off to or how things are going. We want to get off and we want to play just like we did last year from an everyday standpoint. We want to be ready and we want to be just as hungry."
At this point, words are all we have to go on, and the players inside the Phillies' clubhouse insist that they are not satisfied with one World Series title. There seems to be a common understanding that this team is in as good a position as any recent champion to repeat. Twenty-three of the 25 members of last year's postseason roster entered spring training under contract to the team. The only key loss from last year's title team, leftfielder Pat Burrell, has been replaced by a player in Raul Ibanez who the organization feels is an upgrade. With all but one of their regulars, their top starter, their closer, and relievers Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero under contract through at least 2010, the Phillies feel they should be among the preseason favorites for at least the next two seasons.
"The last couple years, the last 5 or 6 years, the World Series has been won by a different team every year," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "It's up for grabs every year. It'd be nice to go out there and stake your claim and hold on to it for awhile and be known as the champs like the Yankees were in the '90s."
Like those Yankees, who featured homegrown players like shortstop Derek Jeter, outfielder Bernie Williams, catcher Jorge Posada, starter Andy Pettitte and closer Mariano Rivera, the Phillies have an impressive core of players under contract. But they will also need the contributions of players who either were not a part of or played minimal roles in last year's postseason run.
Righthander Chan Ho Park, a 15-year veteran who rejuvenated his career last season with the Dodgers, was signed in the offseason and will fill the fifth spot in the rotation. Lefthander J.A. Happ, who spent all of last postseason on the roster but was used sparingly, should enter the season in a relief role. Ibanez will fill the role inhabited last season by Burrell, who parted ways with the Phillies after nine seasons and signed with the Rays.
But for the most part, the Phillies are the same. Ibanez already has assimilated himself into the clubhouse, impressing his teammates with his intense work ethic and easy-going demeanor. Jayson Werth, who signed a 2-year, $10million contract in the offseason and enters the year as the team's everyday rightfielder, said that since Rollins and centerfielder Shane Victorino returned from their participation in the World Baseball Classic, the chemistry hasn't seemed any different from last season.
"It was a little bit different when Shane and Jimmy weren't here," said Werth, who hit .273 with 24 home runs and 67 RBI in 2008. "But then the other day when they got back here, it was like, 'Oh yeah. We're all right.'"
There are a few subplots aside from the attempt at repeating. Myers, who showed up to spring training 30 to 35 pounds lighter, will be a free agent after the season. Fellow righthander Joe Blanton, who has received rave reviews this spring, begins his first full season with the Phillies (the club acquired him at the All-Star break last season in a trade with the Athletics). Lefthander J.C. Romero will miss the first 50 games of the season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, which apparently came as the result of an over-the-counter supplement he was taking. The loss weakens a Phillies bullpen that was a strength of the team last season.
"We don't worry about the failing part," Rollins said. "We do that, we're looking in the wrong direction. We're not worrying about that at all. We're just worrying about finding what our team is going to be about, finding that rhythm, finding that chemistry again and what can we take from last year as a learning step to get us geared up and in the right direction for this year."
The start of a brand new day comes Sunday.
Said Werth: "I think we'll be up for the challenge." *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.