Phillies aces take the field for first time

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CLEARWATER, FLA. (AP) - Cliff Lee didn’t hesitate, raising his hand right away when a reporter asked which of the Philadelphia Phillies‘ aces is the best hitter.

“That’s me,” Lee said with a smile.

Cole Hamels quickly chimed in.

“I’m going to compete against him,” said Hamels, who’s been used as a pinch-hitter in the past. “I think Joe (Blanton) is the only one with a home run.”

Not true. Roy Oswalt put his hands up to point out that he also has gone deep in his career.

“Oh, I forgot, I forgot,” Hamels said. “Yours wasn’t in the World Series, sorry.”

The one guy left out of the conversation was Roy Halladay, who does his best work on the mound. Then again, that’s what all of these guys are paid to do. And, they each do it very well.

The Phillies have assembled _ on paper _ a starting rotation that’s being compared to some of the all-time best in the majors. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels would be the No. 1 guy on most staffs. Blanton is probably the best fifth starter around.

After pitchers and catchers held their first workout of spring training on Monday, the Fab Five took the stage for a joint news conference. Lee put all the hype into perspective.

“I think we haven’t thrown a single pitch as a group yet, so it’s kind of early to say we’re one of the best rotations in the history of the game,” Lee said. “Obviously, we’re a very talented group, and there is potential for all of that. But it’s just that, it’s potential.”

Only two clubs have ever had four 20-game winners in a season. The Baltimore Orioles had Dave McNally (21), Mike Cuellar (20), Pat Dobson (20) and Jim Palmer (20) in 1971. The Chicago White Sox had Red Faber (23), Lefty Williams (22), Eddie Cicotte (21) and Dickey Kerr (21) in 1920.

The Atlanta Braves ruled the NL East with dominant pitching for more than a decade, beginning in the early 1990s. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were the top three starters, and are likely headed to the Hall of Fame. Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood were the most notable of Atlanta’s fourth starters.

In 1998, the Braves became just the ninth team and first since 1930 to have five 15-game winners. Glavine (20), Maddux (18), Smoltz (17), Millwood (17) and Neagle (16) combined for 88 of Atlanta’s 106 wins.

“I think the best rotation I can remember is the Braves back with Glavine, Smoltz, Avery and Maddux,” Lee said. “I don’t even remember who the fifth guy was, but those four were pretty dang good.”

If Blanton isn’t traded away to cut payroll, the Phillies have a chance to match that. Halladay won 21 games last year, threw a perfect game, a no-hitter in his first career postseason start and earned his second career Cy Young Award. Lee won the AL Cy Young award in ‘08. Oswalt has an NLCS MVP award in his trophy case and he’s been a 20-game winner twice. Hamels was MVP of the NLCS and World Series in ‘08. Blanton has a 16-win season on his resume.

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