Monday, February 28, 2011

New Chink In Dented Armor

Chase Utley has a knee problem and Phillies fans everywhere buckled at the news.

By now everyone who follows the Phillies knows Utley cannot be relied on to reveal the truth about his health; nor, for that matter, can the Phillies, who routinely obfuscate whenever suggestions let alone rumors surface that one of their players is hurting.

The Utley injury, confirmed as patella tendinitis by an MRI, is no small matter given how important his presence in the lineup is and how much the Phils are counting on him to rebound from last season's injury-plagued year. Wilson Valdez did an admirable job last year, but he ain't no Utley, hurt or otherwise.

If tincture of time proves ineffective in Utley's case, the Phils could move Placido Polanco to second, his more natural position. They'd still have to solve the problem of who plays third, however.

What we do know is there is no margin of error for the Phils' offense.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

This Has To Be The Year

One of the most anticipated seasons in their long and mostly tortuous history gets underway this afternoon when the Phillies take on the NY Yankees in the first Spring Training game against a major league opponent. (The Phils played Florida State last week.)

For the phaithful that long history has been far less tortuous of late. The Phils have won the NL East title four years running and have advanced to two World Series, winning one, and one NLCS in the process.

As the pundits are quick to point out, today's game is largely meaningless other than to give some prime players live competition and some fringe players a chance to show they belong. It is interesting to look over the announced starting lineups and note the Yankees will send out what is expected to be their starting day lineup while the Phils will be without several certain starters including most of their infield.

Last season the Phils faltered when their vaunted offense could not keep pace with their pitching, which was supposed to play the supporting role. True, the offense was beset by injuries to all of the starting infield, but the overall feeling was the Phils did not perform well at the plate, taking too passive an approach. Hitting coach Milt Thompson was the sacrificial lamb at mid-season, the usual response when "something must be done", but his replacement, Greg Gross, didn't have any better success convincing players to go up their hacking.

It isn't exactly comforting to read Chase Utley won't be in the lineup today because of "body soreness". Utley missed 49 games last year and never looked sharp at the plate or in the field. The Phils are counting on him to rebound this season. Jimmy Rollins, who was excused for a few days, is also out of the lineup, apparently running late getting back to camp. Rollins missed a huge amount of last season due to injury (and was the center of a mild controversy the year before for arriving late for a game). Both players must come back if the Phils expect to contend.

In truth the Phils are clearly built to win now. Many of their starters are advancing in years (Utley, Howard, Rollins, Oswalt, Ibanez, Lidge, Polanco) and more importantly many are being counted on to bounce back from sub-par seasons in 2010. If a few of them fail to rebound, there won't be any parades in the Fall of 2011 nor will there be one in 2012, when even more holes will have to be filled.

So, this year has to be it. Everything gets underway this afternoon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spring Notes On And Off The Diamond

Trying to stay calm amidst the hype surrounding the 2011 edition of the Phillies isn't going to be easy. Publicly, Cliff Lee seems to be taking things in stride, pointing out the Fab Four, Four Aces or whatever this magnificent rotation is eventually nicknamed, hasn't thrown a single pitch yet and have already been anointed one of the best starting quartets ever!

One real sign of the times is that Chase Utley has already reported, early naturally, along with the pitchers and catchers. Infielders weren't due for another week, but Utley is a man on a mission, hoping to improve on last year's injury-plagued performance. Anyone hoping the intense second baseman might learn to take things in at a more measured pace, you know, the old marathon vs. sprint metaphor, would have to view his early arrival as a sign it's business as usual for Utley.

As marvelous as the pitching staff is, the Phillies have far too many players deemed in comeback mode to start planning any parades down Broad Street. One thing is certain: this is a team that must win this year. A few of its key ingredients will be free agents after the season. Several of its key players will be on the other side of baseball middle age at the conclusion of the season. Many are predicting the Phillies will hoist the World Series trophy late next Autumn, but before they get there a lot of troubling questions must be answered satisfactorily.

This is no sure thing.

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Were the Phillies inclined to look across Pattison Avenue for some inspiration, both the Flyers and Sixers are having fine seasons. The Fly Boys will certainly make the playoffs with many predicting they will go deep into them if not all the way. They don't really have a Bernie Parent-level goaltender, but they do have remarkable overall balance and skill.

The Sixers might not make the playoffs, but already they have had a marvelous season under new head coach Doug Collins. Collins will certainly be a candidate for coach of the year, but he may find himself a finalist for an even bigger honor, The Most Patient Man In Professional Sports.

Collins is being given much of the credit for the Sixers' turnaround from a moribund, underachieving team lacking a personality to a bunch of mid-level players working together on both ends of the court at maximum capacity and effort. The Sixers lack a true big star as well as a top-notch man in the middle, but they manage to cobble together the talent they have into a very cohesive defensive unit that on any given night can play with nearly all of the best in the NBA. To have come so far in half a season under Collins is a tribute to how well they've bought into his system and his personality.

* * * * * * * *

How far has Tiger Woods fallen? He was fined for spitting on the 12th green in a tournament over the weekend in the process of shooting a final round of 75 that dropped him way out of contention. Egads! Fined for spitting! Tournament officials claimed it was the height of unsportsman-like conduct. Paraphrasing one indignant official, "Someone putting on that green might have to deal with his ball and Woods' saliva. Disgraceful."

Imagine the ruckus is pitchers throughout MLB started complaining about their opposite numbers spitting on the mound. On second thought, who could possible monitor major league baseball players' expectorant rate?