- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | The problems supposedly before the Philadelphia Phillies as they began their defense of the 2008 World Series title were plentiful in number and distressing in nature.

Their redoubtable closer, Brad Lidge, turned into an unreliable mess by midseason. Their ace, Cole Hamels, started the year with injuries and never regained his 2008 form. Midseason acquisition Cliff Lee fizzled in his final starts of the season. The loaded lineup started firing blanks in a late slump. Their competition in the National League was better than it was last season, and their first-round matchup with the Colorado Rockies put before them the task of stopping the league’s hottest team.

But one game into their repeat bid, it appears the Phillies will be just fine.

Facing the Rockies in a rematch of their 2007 NL Division Series, the Phillies earned a commanding 5-1 victory, showing no signs of being the first rung on another climb by Colorado to the World Series. Instead, they looked every bit like the machine that went 11-3 in the postseason last year - and appeared capable of doing it all again.

Lee allowed one run in a complete-game victory, coming within a strike of the Phillies’ first postseason shutout since Curt Schilling in 1993. Despite blustery conditions that turned would-be homers into extra-base hits, Philadelphia racked up five runs on Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez in the fifth and sixth innings. And they had no need for a bullpen that has created its fair share of drama this season.

“I felt like we hit the ball very good, and it’s good to see [outfielders Raul] Ibanez and [Jayson] Werth, the middle of our lineup, hit good,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “We beat a good pitcher today. And of course Cliff pitched a hell of a game. It was a good ballgame, really.”

Making his first postseason start, Lee gave up three hits in the first two innings, getting bailed out of a scoring situation in the second inning when Werth threw out Yorvit Torrealba at third after backtracking to catch Clint Barmes’ flyout to right. Starting in the third, though, he retired 19 of 20 batters and needed just 69 pitches to get through six innings.

“He got really, really good as the game went on, to the point where, by the third inning, I don’t know if he missed a spot,” Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. “We certainly didn’t get too many good pitches to swing at. He was pretty much on the corners.”

The Phillies blasted Jimenez for five runs after the young right-hander’s 98 mph fastball lost some zip. That was despite conditions that neutralized the Phillies’ bandbox of a ballpark.

A stiff left-to-right wind, blowing at 24 mph, turned even the most rudimentary popups into challenges. Trash billowed across the field as if it were some back alley, and several times players doubled as garbagemen, retrieving food wrappers as they blew into fair territory.

And it kept a pair of deep shots - Ryan Howard’s double to left and Werth’s triple off the center-field wall - from being homers.

But the Phillies managed to string together enough hits to get their runs anyway, also stealing three bases on Torrealba, who threw out just 14 percent of base-stealers this season. Even Lee got into the act, swiping second in the third inning to become the first Phillies pitcher to steal a base in the postseason and the fourth to do it overall.

“I think it’s no secret that that’s a big part of our game,” Werth said. “I think we led the National League in stolen base percentage again this year, and Davey Lopes [coaching] at first base, that’s definitely a big part of our game.”

They’ll have a chance to take a 2-0 series lead Thursday with a win at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies didn’t lose a game in the 2008 postseason. And if they do that, sending the series back to Denver on the verge of a sweep, there will be little remaining doubt the World Series champions can be dangerous despite whatever flaws exist.

“We know how to play the game, and also our guys know how to move runners,” Manuel said. “They know what you have to do to move runners. Sometimes they don’t do it, but at the same time we know how and when it’s supposed to be done, and that’s kind of what execution’s all about.”

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