By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
PHILADELPHIA—While every team around baseball is excited about the opening of the new season, the Phillies seem to be approaching the 2013 season with a new sense of energy and a determination to get back to the top of the National League East standings.
“It feels like to me there’s more intensity and focus this spring because of the failure from last year,” said left-handed starter Cliff Lee. “Everybody knows we had a lot of injuries, so guys are more focused on getting ready and a ‘we’ll show everyone mentality.’ To me that’s a good thing. It’s just go matter of going out there and executing and staying healthy.”
For one thing, the Phillies will have their best run producers—Ryan Howard and Chase Utley at the beginning of the season, something they didn’t have last season until shortly before the All-Star break when the team was in too deep of a hole to get back into the pennant race.
Both Howard and Utley played well in spring training and will come into the season with a clean bill of health. Howard batted .338 down in Florida, hit seven homeruns and had 17 runs batted in. Utley had a .273 batting average, but hit five home runs while driving in 16.
“I think it’s very big for the fact that they are the two biggest run producers for our team,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manager. “I think having them back is very important. It always has been. The acquisitions that we made this year with Ben (Revere) and (third baseman) Michael Young makes us better and when we get Carlos Ruiz and (right fielder) Delmon Young our offense should really pick up.”
Coming into Friday’s exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizen’s Bank, Manuel hadn’t announced his decision if Revere or shortstop Jimmy Rollins would be batting at the lead-off spot. In the last few weeks of spring training, Manuel has rotated Rollins at the No. 1 and the No.2 spot.
“I would feel comfortable hitting (Revere) at leadoff or second or anywhere else in the lineup even if I have to put him down (in the lineup), I feel very comfortable with him,” Manuel said. “I like Jimmy Rollins leading off basically for a couple of things. One of them is the runs he produces in the lead-off hole. He’s knocking seventh, eighth and ninth hole hitters and that’s pretty big.
“How he does it? He hits triples, doubles and homers. That’s how he does it.”
Another huge story line for the Phils is their starting rotation, namely Roy Halladay. With talk of his velocity diminishing and his struggles during the course of spring training, Manuel said he expects Halladay to be okay when the regular season starts.
“I have some concerns about it, but at the same time in the last three times, he’s gotten better,” Manuel said. “I think he’s ready to go. In talking to (pitching coach) Rich Dubee and Roy, he’s ready to start the season and he’s ready to pitch.”
Even as strong as the Washington Nationals starting rotation is projected to be, Lee said the Phillies rotation with himself, Halladay, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan are equally as good.
“I think the track record speaks for itself,” Lee said. “It’s a pretty solid rotation. If we stay healthy and give the team a chance every time we go out there. I like our chances.”
With veteran Mike Adams as the setup man in the back end of the bullpen with closer Jonathan Papelbon, Manuel said he likes his bullpen and he is expecting some of his younger pitchers to come through as well.
“I think (Antonio) Bastardo is going to pitch better this year because we can get him away from pitching against three right-handed hitters,” Manuel said. “I think with Adams back there that gives us more consistency in the back end.”
Manuel said he’s expecting some of the pitchers the team sent to the minors to be good as well.
One of the big questions for the Phillies offense is can leftfielder Domonic Brown duplicate his outstanding performance during spring training in the regular season? The often maligned Brown raised eyebrows this spring with a .376 batting average, seven homeruns and 17 runs batted in.
“I think mentally he’s a lot different,” Manuel said. “He has a direction now in like who he is and where he wants to go. He’s made some adjustments in his hitting. The biggest thing I saw is that he had good balance and rhythm when he caught ball out front. He has a strong, active bottom hand that’s what creates angles for the ball.”
Perhaps the biggest thing for the 25-year-old Brown is that he got through spring training healthy and did not sustain any injuries, something that has bothered him throughout his brief career.
“The big thing for me was just to stay healthy and put in the work that I’ve always have,” Brown said. “I’m just going out there and having fun. I’m preparing the right way every day and trying to do my part to help this team.”