Stephen A. Smith | It isn't the Phillies they're coming to see

Posted: April 01, 2007

The calming, therapeutic scent of spring arrived just in time to welcome America's national pastime, still known as major-league baseball. Even in this town. It arrived with expectations for the 2007 Phillies, with anticipation that a city starving for meaningful baseball in the fall would be appeased. Finally. And all it took was the final weekend of spring training - and the presence of Daisuke Matsuzaka - to remove the pedestal of euphoria so we can all return to the land of the living.

You didn't have to see Boston's new Asian sensation pitch against the Phillies yesterday to know exactly what Beantown is lavishing in and what Philadelphia is sorely lacking. All anyone had to do was take a peek into the stands and the press box inside Citizens Bank Park yesterday to know exactly why the Red Sox doled out about $103 million to get the latest Godzilla import.

"He's the real deal. Trust me," Boston's Big Papi, David Ortiz, said after the game yesterday. "Whatever it is, he's got it."

We can only pray the Phillies will have someone like this someday because they certainly don't have him now.

The World Series has ignored Philadelphia since 1993, which would explain the media's occasional jealousy, because of their inability to do the same. But everyone was paying attention on this Saturday afternoon. Matsuzaka was in the house, along with a plethora of Asian journalists recording his every move. And if there was an empty seat in the ballpark, blame it on the folks who preferred watching the action from the concession area - with no need for an interpreter.

The ballpark wasn't packed to watch Ryan Howard or Chase Utley any more than the fans were in attendance to see who would be singing the national anthem. They came to see Matsuzaka pitch in a major-league ballpark for the first time and watch the tentacles of a nation following in line.

Matsuzaki threw 82 pitches in four complete innings, surrendering two hits and three earned runs while striking out seven, leaving with a lead and his reputation intact. His fastball, breaking ball and something called the gyro are "legit," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "He's going to be good. How good? We'll see."

What is depressing is that Matsuzaka is opening the season third in the Red Sox rotation, which would mean Boston has two other starters (Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett) considered more qualified to start before him. Meanwhile, the Phillies have us praying Brett Myers will remain as nasty (affectionately speaking) as always, and that it will rub off on everyone else, especially the bullpen.

"We definitely have some concerns," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. The thing is, Manuel said that before the Phillies dropped their second straight game, a 7-5 loss to the Red Sox yesterday.

Manuel said this before Cole Hamels got smacked around for four home runs on Friday night. He said this before Adam Eaton got blitzed for six earned runs in three innings yesterday. Before the likes of the aforementioned, plus Ryan Madson, Geoff Geary and Antonio Alfonseca, had us all wondering if Phillies general manager Pat Gillick needs to be spending more time in the States instead of Canada.

You don't say this to be mean where the Phillies are concerned, because this is a franchise moving in the right direction. Gillick is more than competent. The potency of this offense validates anyone's lofty expectations. And Manuel - arguably one of the nicest, most straightforward human beings I've ever encountered in professional sports - is virtually impossible to root against.

Yet, the concerns become more palpable as you watch this team. Expecting them to surrender just as many runs as they score, if not more. Questionable pitching is no cure for anxiety, which everyone seems to know but the Phillies.

"We will be OK," Rollins reiterated yesterday, weeks after vowing the Phillies were the team to beat in the National League East. "We'll get together whatever we need to get together. We're going to be just fine."

It's nice of Rollins to believe that. In fact, considering what we've seen over the last two days, along with noting the Phillies relievers spent the first 16 games in the spring compiling an 8.13 ERA, it's downright generous.

"Relax," Rollins says.

"I can't wait," Howard adds.

The difference between Philadelphia and Boston in these days is that Boston once waited 86 years to end its drought. It's doubtful the Phillies will take that long. But no one doubts they'll make it feel that way.

Matsuzaka represents the arrival of a new time, a new era and vibrant expectations. The Red Sox made that happen by getting him to Boston.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Phillies watch while stuff like this happens.

Supposedly, we're big-time like everybody else. Huh!


Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or ssmith@phillynews.com.

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