Inside the Phillies: Phillies aim to build on last year's strong finish

First baseman Ryan Howard said the Phillies' comeback last season "sets the tone for this year."
First baseman Ryan Howard said the Phillies' comeback last season "sets the tone for this year." (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 20, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Washington Nationals went 80-81 in 2011 and established optimism inside and outside the organization for 2012 with a strong 17-10 finish in the final month.

The Phillies went 81-81 in 2012, but the fact that they went 44-30 after July 13 did not seem to carry the same weight compared with the way the Nationals had played in the final month of the previous season.

Those were proud moments in the Phillies' clubhouse at the end of last season. Ryan Howard referenced "the comeback" that fell short again last week.

"It was rough," he said. "We were 14 games under .500 at one point. Yeah, we finished at .500, but to be that far down and be able to come back the way that we did, and to play the way that we did, and to actually be in the hunt for the second wild-card spot the last few weeks of the season, I think it speaks volumes for this team and kind of sets the tone for this year."

Closer Jonathan Papelbon agrees that what happened at the end of last year does matter now as the Phillies prepare for the new season.

"We did not find our identity until the last month of the season," Papelbon said. "When that happens, it's a recipe for disaster. The quicker we find our identity this season, the quicker we'll win. My hope is that we take the identity we had the last month of the season and carry it into the spring. I'm not saying we carry it into opening day. I'm saying we need to carry it into here right now. What you carry into spring training and take from spring training goes into day one."

The Phillies, of course, carried a lot of bad vibes into the 2012 season, and there's still a chance they will be burdened with some serious problems between now and the April 1 season opener in Atlanta. But the start of this spring already has been considerably better than the last one.

Howard is not answering questions about timetables for his return this time around. Chase Utley is talking about playing in the exhibition opener Saturday against the Houston Astros rather than talking about taking it slowly.

The Phillies went 39-26 in games when both Howard and Utley were in the lineup last season. Factor in their track record before last season and there is every reason to believe they will be among baseball's elite teams in 2013.

The national perception, however, is that the Phillies are an old and fading team, a label that caused Howard to bristle last week.

When Sports Illustrated's website came out with its spring-training power rankings earlier this month, the Nationals and Braves were the top two teams. Both teams, of course, finished ahead of the Phillies last season, and both teams are considerably younger and were extremely active in the offseason.

There are a lot of reasons to believe that the Nationals and Braves will be good again this season, but they have some ifs, too.

The rankings listed the Phillies at 16th, with five National League teams ahead of them, including the San Diego Padres.

"The rotation is still headlined by Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, and that's an encouraging start to any team, but Philadelphia's offensive production (both total runs scored and league rank) has dipped three straight seasons," Sports Illustrated said. "On opening day, the Phillies' four infielders and catcher will all be 33 or older, and the only player in that group who hasn't shown signs of decline - catcher Carlos Ruiz - is suspended the first 25 games of the season for a failed PED [performance-enhancing drug] test. [Mike] Adams and Jonathan Papelbon form a dominant back end of the bullpen, which had been missing in Philadelphia."

The ESPN preseason rankings listed the Nationals first, the Braves fifth, and the Phillies 15th.

"I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay," ESPN's blog post began, "but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere, and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard, and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley."

If you see an infield of Young, Rollins, Utley, and Howard, that's a pretty good reason to think the Phillies will be better than the 15th-best team in baseball. And if you see a healthy rotation of Hamels, Lee, and Halladay, you also will see a team in the playoffs again regardless of who is in the outfield.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow @brookob on Twitter.

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