Four years into what should come to be known as the best era in franchise history, the Phillies enter Game 1 of the National League Division Series in one of their more peculiar positions of this unprecedented run of success. They are the prohibitive favorites to represent the NL in the World Series for a third straight year. They are the owners of the best record in Major League Baseball, a 97-65 mark that they last equaled in 1993. Yet for one of the few times in Charlie Manuel's six seasons at the helm, the Phils will take the field as offensive also-rans.
The dynamic leadoff hitter will be Brandon Phillips, who hit .275 with 18 home runs while leading the Cincinnati Reds with 155 games played, instead of Jimmy Rollins, who hit .243 with eight home runs in 88 games. The MVP slugger will be Joey Votto, who posted career highs in home runs (37) and OPS (1.024), instead of Ryan Howard, who posted career-lows in the same two categories (31 and .859).
The Reds enter the series fresh off a regular season in which they led the league in batting average (.272), runs (790), and, yes, home runs (188). In doing so, they avoided the types of funks that hampered the Phillies during an injury-plagued campaign. The Phillies scored fewer than three runs in 51 games. The Reds did so in an NL-low 36 games. The Phillies scored fewer than four runs in 75 games. The Reds did so in 65, tied for the fewest in the league.
But before you walk up to Tony Luke's and order a Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati favorite, here is something to consider: Where some might see a cause for concern, the Phillies see potential. Because the postseason just might be the first time you see their offense together.
In the 157 games it took the Phillies to clinch their fourth straight NL East title, they fielded a lineup with their eight Opening Day regulars exactly 14 times.
"That's crazy," said Rollins, whose litany of lower-body injuries - strained calf, bruised foot, strained hamstring - kept him on the sideline for nearly half of the team's games.
Even crazier is the fact that the Phillies' eight regulars never took the field together for more than two games in a row. The first time the starting eight plays three straight games together could be Game 3 of the NLDS, assuming catcher Carlos Ruiz does not miss time because of the pitch he took off the elbow on Sunday against the Braves. (Ruiz, who was cautiously optimistic when X-rays came back negative, was scheduled to meet with a team doctor yesterday for further evaluation.)
"You know what? I don't even think we consider whether we have a full lineup in or not," Rollins said. "I can't think of any year since we've had this run the last 4 years that we've had a completely healthy lineup. Some key part has always been down."
Last year, though, the Phillies had five players log at least 650 plate appearances. This year, rightfielder Jayson Werth was the only member of the team to reach that mark. In 2008, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were the only two players to reach 650 plate appearances. But that team also featured rotations at third base (Pedro Feliz and Greg Dobbs combined for 703) and rightfield (Werth and Geoff Jenkins combined for 804).
This year, the Phillies dealt with extended injury-related absences to Utley (thumb surgery), Placido Polanco (bruised elbow), Ruiz (concussion), Howard (sprained ankle) and Shane Victorino (oblique), in addition to Rollins.
"I'm very optimistic," Manuel said. "But this has also given me a chance to see a lot of our bench."
The bench, which struggled last postseason, could wind up paying dividends. Last year, Ben Francisco was the only bench player who hit over .250 in at least 100 plate appearances. This year, Francisco (.268 in 197 PAs) was joined by Wilson Valdez (.258 in 363 PAs) and Ross Gload (.281 in 138 PAs).
"It says a lot," said Utley, who hit .275 with a career-low 16 home runs in 115 games. "We have a very talented bench. It also shows that we didn't really make excuses, or throw in the towel at any point in the year. We kept playing and kept grinding it out."
Still, the focal point this postseason will rest on a starting lineup that has never quite been intact. Look inside the numbers they posted in the 157 games it took them to clinch and there is plenty of reason for hope.
In the 83 games in which the Phillies started at least seven of their regulars, they hit .266 with a .345 on-base percentage and the following per-game averages: 5.2 runs, 1.2 home runs, 9.4 hits, 3.4 extra-base hits, 4.0 walks and 6.7 strikeouts.
In 74 games with fewer than seven regulars, they hit .253/.311 while averaging 4.4 runs, 0.9 home runs, 8.8 hits, 2.7 XBH, 2.9 walks, and 6.6 strikeouts.
"In this day and age, everybody kind of wants to know their role," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "If you talk to guys in the bullpen, they want to know what their role is. They feel comfortable if I know I'm pitching in this situation, typically. I think that does mean a lot. That said, at the end of the day, it's about whether you can hit or not. But I think they reach a comfort level in their spot in the lineup and it could have an effect on certain guys."
The Phillies' offense will take the field tomorrow hoping to find that comfort level and re-establish itself as the biggest show in town.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.