- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2011

CLEARWATER, FLA. (AP) - How’s this for pressure? Anything less than a World Series title will be considered a failure for the Philadelphia Phillies this season.

Expectations are that high for a franchise that’s won just two championships in 128 years and has lost more games than any pro team in professional sports.

A sensational starting rotation bolstered by the stunning offseason addition of Cliff Lee is the reason the Phillies were consensus favorites to win it all entering spring training.

Adding Lee to a staff that includes reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, three-time All-Star Roy Oswalt and 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels gives Philadelphia a rotation that’s already been compared to some of baseball’s all-time best starting staffs.

But injuries took a toll this spring and the team will head north without five-time All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, closer Brad Lidge and outfielder Domonic Brown, a top prospect who was expected to help replace Jayson Werth.

Still, the Phillies are considered the team to beat in the NL. Even Bruce Bochy, manager of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants, gave Philadelphia the nod when his club opened camp.

The Phillies have won four straight NL East titles, and led the majors with 97 wins last year. They were World Series champions in 2008, fell two wins short of repeating in ‘09 and were two wins away from becoming the first NL team in 66 years to capture three consecutive pennants before losing to the Giants in the NLCS last fall.

That’s why fans in Philadelphia began planning for an October parade down Broad Street from the minute the Phillies signed Lee to a $120 million, five-year contract in December.

Of course, having the best team on paper doesn’t guarantee success.

“Sometimes people forget how hard it is to win. Sometimes we forget everything about it _ fans, media, organizational people, players, managers and coaches,” manager Charlie Manuel said early in spring training. “The other day, I was just sitting and thinking about winning. Winning is hard. The Yankees have won 27 World Series. How long have they been in existence, 128 years? That means that over 100 years, they lost. Winning is tough. Winning is hard. And you’ve got to stay at it.”

Losing Utley doesn’t help. Utley is out indefinitely with a tricky knee problem, leaving a big void in Philadelphia’s lineup. Utley’s injury and Werth’s departure _ he signed a $126 million, seven-year deal with Washington _ means the Phillies will start the season without their Nos. 3 and 5 hitters from the last few years.

It’s a big concern for Manuel.

“We’re missing two big run-producers right in the middle of our lineup,” he said. “We’ve got people that are going to have to step up and do better than they’ve been doing or prove that they’re better big-league players than what they have been.”

Veteran Luis Castillo, signed after he was released by the New York Mets, could end up taking Utley’s spot. Ben Francisco replaces Werth in right field. Brown will begin the season in the minors after he returns from hand surgery, but he could wind up splitting time with Francisco at some point.

The Phillies are counting on several players who had subpar seasons to regain their old form and spark a once-potent offense. Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 NL MVP, is coming off an injury-plagued year. The switch-hitting shortstop has to deliver, especially if he bats third instead of his preferred leadoff spot while Utley is out.

Ryan Howard, the 2006 NL MVP, had career lows in homers (31) and RBIs (108). Now, he won’t have Utley in front of him or Werth behind him. Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco also saw their numbers decline last year.

“We won 97 games last year, and I think if you go and ask anybody in that clubhouse, we don’t feel that we were as good as we probably should have been,” Rollins said. “And due to injuries, we still had guys come in and play and step up. We feel we were probably 10-15 games short of what we probably should have been in the regular season and definitely in the playoffs.”

The offense may not have to generate many runs whenever one of the four aces takes the mound. No. 5 starter Joe Blanton is no slouch, either.

“It’s not about us five or those eight or whatever,” Lee said. “It’s 25 guys. We’ve all got to contribute. If we all do our work and prepare each day and carry our weight, good things should happen.”

The bullpen was a concern even before Lidge was shut down last week because of shoulder issues. Lidge has been inconsistent since his perfect season in ‘08. He’ll be replaced by Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras, and there isn’t much depth behind them.

Then again, the relievers may not get much work if the starters consistently pitch to their capabilities and go seven or eight innings.

“The biggest thing in baseball is health,” Oswalt said. “If we keep everybody healthy, we’ve got a great chance. But you still have to play the games. These guys on the other teams get paid a lot of money to do the same things we do. Just because we look good on paper and what we’ve done in the past doesn’t mean you are going to have a great year.”

In Philadelphia, great won’t even be good enough unless the Phillies hoist that World Series trophy at the end.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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