CLEARWATER, Fla. - A year ago, it was all about them. They held news conferences together and apart, posed for group shots, dictated carefully when they would be available during the spring and when they would not.
This spring, it's been quiet time for the remaining three of the Phillies' Fab Four. Oh, the locker room is still filled with media, microphones and a certain amount of cable on most days, but the focus has shifted to their missing core and the very veteran names who have been hired this offseason to boost an offense that has, over the last two postseasons, sabotaged this club's chance at a true dynasty.
Ryan Howard. Chase Utley. Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik, Jim Thome. It's all about feet and knees in 2012. No one's talking arms. No one's talking about the Phillies' pitching staff this spring.
And that's the good news. Really good news.
Imagine, just for a shudder, that reports of Howard's non-setback and the updates of Chase Utley's chondromalacia - or lack thereof - were just part of a day-to-day drama that included status reports of tender elbows, sore biceps or repeated ineffectiveness.
Imagine being a Reds fan when news of Ryan Madson's season-ending Tommy John surgery flashed across the bottom of your ESPN ticker. Imagine being a Cardinals fan this spring, the departure of your all-everything superstar bat, Albert Pujols, compounded by the news that your Cy Young and postseason ace Chris Carpenter had been shut down.
Think there's been a civic meltdown back home this spring? Imagine even a hint of that. Michael Stutes had to skip a scheduled appearance this week because of shoulder stiffness, and Antonio Bastardo has battled through some forearm issues, but really . . .
"We've had, as a staff, a very uneventful spring," Cole Hamels said with a smile.
The other day, the Phillies lefty - who is still negotiating a long-term deal with the Phillies - made his final extended outing of the spring against the high-octane Rays, retired the first 11 batters and was in the process of striking his way out of a sixth-inning jam when pitching coach Rich Dubee replaced him with newcomer Chad Qualls.
Qualls struck out his only batter. He's been solid this spring. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has been spectacular. There is a collection of bullpen arms that have posted good spring training numbers hoping to secure a spot, should the problems of Stutes or Bastardo linger. But the all-important starting staff has sailed through the spring. This would be the biggest story by far in most camps, but the incredible truth is that those arms have been overlooked this spring - if that's at all possible.
Hamels had one bad outing this spring. Otherwise, he allowed two earned runs or fewer. In Cliff Lee's most recent outing, he allowed three hits and no runs over six innings. Roy Halladay? One blowup, the rest typical. Joe Blanton has been the old Joe Blanton - baserunners, lots of pitches, but plenty of escapes, too. Vance Worley had his blowup the other day against the Twins, but in four previous starts encompassing 16 innings, he had allowed five earned runs.
And Kyle Kendrick, after signing his extension, hadn't allowed an earned run in four appearances entering this weekend.
"I think we're trying to take the same approach that we did amid all the hoopla of last year," Hamels said this week. "I think we're going to go out there with the same mentality of putting up zeros whether we have a lineup of All-Stars or a lineup of near-All-Stars. We're going to go out there to win. That's kind of why we're where we are. We don't let anything else affect us except what we have to do out there on the field."
Hamels paused. Well, that's not all true, he said. He knows what it's like to face another lineup when it's missing veteran stars.
"You're facing Atlanta and Chipper's out, it's kind of nice," he said. "You're facing Miami and Hanley [Ramirez is] out all year, that's a nice feeling. You get the same with New York; when David [Wright is] out and Jose Reyes is out, you're like, 'OK, great!'
"It is tough. They're the guys who have been here since I've been here. I got called up, these were the go-to guys. They were the guys you relied on, who definitely put fear into an opposing pitcher and the opposing team. It helps motivate you . . . because you know if you can get nine innings and these guys will have three or four at-bats, they're going to make a difference.
"They're baseball guys. They really love to play the game. And when they're not out there, you can definitely tell. I don't think you can ever replicate what Chase and Ryan do."
Probably not. But as long as Hamels and his mates continue to swim along, they might not have to. This team won 102 games last year despite playing at times with three-fourths of its infield missing, slumping outfielders, and disappointing prospects.
It's conditioned to this. Or as Hamels said, "It's something where we're just going to have to kind of bear."
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